The Bamberger Ranch and Texas land conservation

Caitlin Cosper
By Caitlin Cosper
For business

The Bamberger Ranch spans over 5,500 acres in Blanco County, Texas.

What do vacuum cleaners, fried chicken and Texas land conservation have in common? One man.

J. David Bamberger didn’t begin his career as professional conservationist. In fact, after graduating from college, Bamberger shocked his friends and family by passing on an offer to work at an insurance company, instead becoming a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman in Ohio. His natural charm proved useful, and Bamberger found financial success going door-to-door.

Choose Energy spoke with Mr. Bamberger, who explained, “I learned more from door-to-door work than I ever learned in university. That had to do with people. I met all kinds of people.” After 17 years going door-to-door, Bamberger moved to Texas, where he had as many as 15 salesmen working under his management.

It was during his time selling vacuums that Bamberger met fellow vacuum cleaner salesman Bill Church, who needed a financial backer to expand his father’s fried chicken restaurant. Bamberger decided to partner with Church, and the two built the chain now known as Church’s Chicken.

With his earnings, Bamberger pursued a very different passion – habitat restoration and land conservation. “People thought I was crazy to invest in the fast food industry,” he said. “But from that investment, I had the capital to do what I dreamed and that was to see if I could take a worthless piece of real estate, work with it, and bring it back to productivity where Mother Nature is the beneficiary.”

An early love for land conservation

Bamberger credits his interest in land conservation to early moments in his childhood. He told Choose Energy, “It started from my youth when I was a little boy in Ohio. My mother kept us outdoors. She taught us every bird, every tree, grass, flowers. She taught me how to go out and pick mushrooms and blackberries. That’s where my curiosity started.”

Since then, Bamberger has spent the past 50 years reviving and restoring 5,500 acres in Blanco Country, TX, to its original beauty on the Bamberger Ranch Preserve (frequently referred to as Selah). The land has thrived under his care, with local flora, natural water sources, and wildlife returning to the ranch.

How the restoration began

Bamberger’s early restoration efforts were not easy. In an interview with Texas Monthly, he explained, “Fifty years ago, there wasn’t any water, there wasn’t any grass, there weren’t any seeds. We only found 48 species of birds. Now we’ve got all those things. The latest bird count is 219 species. Now there are lakes you can swim in, creeks that run, and trees that weren’t here then.”

Much of Bamberger’s beginning attempts with Selah were aimed at reviving the grass. According to Bamberger, water is nonexistent in a landscape with no grass. He began by clearing out the juniper ash that had taken over the land before spreading barrels of native grass seed across the acreage. Now, there are 27 ponds and lakes, and countless flowing springs that provide all the necessary water for the buildings on the preserve.

As Bamberger mentioned, the birdlife has more than quadrupled in the past 50 years. There are even two endangered species of birds – the Golden Cheeked Warbler and the Black cedar thickets Capped Vireo – that nest consistently on the land. The native deer have benefited, too. Over 40 years ago, the deer on the land weighed an average of 55 pounds. Today, bucks living on the ranch weigh an average of 115 pounds.

The Bamberger Ranch is also home to bats. In 1998, Bamberger began to carve out a three-dome cave into one of the hillsides. Slowly and over the span of many years, nearly 400,000 Mexican free-tailed bats have made the cave their home. According to Bamberger, visitors can watch the bats fly out of the cave for as long as 21 minutes. The cave is referred to as the “Chiroptorium,” a term that combines the scientific order for bats – Chiroptera – with auditorium.

“We’ve brought it back to productivity,” he told Choose Energy. “And after that, we wanted to spread the news of how this could happen. How could man mitigate the damage that man does to Mother Nature?”

A deep connection with the land – and the community

The ranch emphasizes community outreach and education to spread the message of land conservation. On average, the ranch hosts 3,000 visitors per year, including school trips, group tours and workshops for fellow landowners. According to the website, “One main mission of the Bamberger Ranch Preserve is to offer educational opportunities to Hill Country area schools, particularly to those who cannot afford access to outdoor parks and preserves.”

In conjunction with school trips, the ranch offers workshops for landowners interested in learning about land conservation. Options include the Land Stewardship Workshop, Water Workshop, Native Grass Workshop and Wildlife Enhancement Workshop. In addition, there are summer camps for kids and adults, tours of the ranch and bat emergence viewings.

However, owning land is not a requirement for those hoping to get involved in conservation. “We have about 40 volunteers that come in, and I would say half of them don’t own land. But they are seeking a way that they can benefit nature and society. People can get out and volunteer in parks, volunteer in cities that need help to maintain landscapes. They can get on a mailing list for conservation organizations,” Bamberger advises.

In thinking about the future of the ranch, Bamberger says, “It’ll go on in perpetuity. An institution, that’s what we’re building. An institution with longevity and credibility.”

2019 marks the 50th anniversary of Selah, which has inspired thousands of students, landowners, and conservationists across the country. As Mr. Bamberger told Choose Energy, “We’ve been here 50 years already, and we’re just getting started.”

Learn more about the history of the ranch, the events offered throughout the year, and schedule a visit on the Selah website.

Caitlin Cosper is a writer within the energy and power industry. Born in Georgia, she attended the University of Georgia before earning her master’s in English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

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