PEC member’s gift to the Texas Hill Country teaches land preservation, restoration
How David Bamberger restored water and native grass to the "worst piece of real estate" in Blanco County
Every step through Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve takes you through lush native grasses. Water ripples in the natural springs, and gravel trails climb the green hilltops. But 48 years ago, there was no grass at Selah, no water. No one wanted the land. PEC member and land steward David Bamberger had a vision for Selah, though, and more importantly, he had hope.
No grass, no water
When Bamberger bought the land, all 3,000 acres of it, in 1969, grass was scarce throughout the property and it was bone dry.
“People told me I bought the worst real estate in Blanco County, and they didn’t know why I wanted it,” Bamberger said. “The reason why I wanted the lousiest piece of real estate was because I had some ideas on how to return it to its historic, natural condition.”
Optimistic, Bamberger got to work drilling seven 500-foot wells, but to his surprise, none of them struck water. When the drill bit dropped 40 feet through perforated rock, he discovered that the property rested on porous honeycomb limestone. It was then Bamberger realized rainwater was running off the surface instead of filtering into the earth and filling the aquifer.
Bamberger knew what he needed: “the greatest conservation tool known to man” — grass. The property was overpopulated with cedar trees, and there was almost no salvageable grass. He began to remove a majority of the cedar and scattered native grass seed across the ranch. As the grasses took hold, rainfall began to be absorbed by their root systems and trickled down through the permeable rock to fill the aquifer.
One day two and a half years later, water began to bubble up from a natural spring on the property that had been dry for decades.
During the restoration, Bamberger purchased an additional 2,500 acres, creating the current 5,500-acre habitat restoration and wildlife preserve. Selah is now home to 245 wildflower species, 213 bird species, 117 woody plant species, 28 mammal species, 11 natural springs and an ever-growing number of ponds and lakes. The water even flows far downstream into creeks and rivers connected to the city of Austin.
“There are no motors, no pumps and no wells helping water flow on the property,” Bamberger said. “If people do [on their own properties] what I’ve done for this land, everything will maintain itself.”
From humble start to booming franchise
An Ohio native, Bamberger was born into poverty, but his mother raised him to value nature more than wealth. He had a love for nature and conservation, but he put his passion aside when he, his wife and their family moved to Texas after he got a job selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door.
Bamberger’s good friend and co-worker, Bill Church, left his career in vacuum sales when he inherited three fried chicken restaurants in San Antonio. After Bamberger read a book on the coming boom in franchising, Church asked him to help build the company around that idea. Together, they built 1,643 restaurants, creating what is now one of the oldest fast food chains in the world — Church’s Chicken.
Ten years later, on May 3, 1969, the company went public, and Bamberger was more wealthy than he had ever imagined. Even after all his success, he still felt the call to preservation.
“I got the money I needed from the fried chicken business to do what I wanted to do with this piece of land,” Bamberger said. “But I always teach everyone that they can do what I did, and it has nothing to do with the money you [have] got. You can always find a way to give back.”
At Selah today
Selah has become one of the largest habitat restoration projects in the state, and has won many prestigious awards, including from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and The Garden Clubs of America.
Fifty-one percent of Selah’s objective is maintaining habitat restoration, and the other 49 percent is dedicated to conservation education, Bamberger said.
“My practices just take a little manpower and some love for our land — including the animals — because wildlife matters,” Bamberger said.
He invites people of all ages to experience what Selah has become over the past 48 years. About 3,000 visitors tour Selah each year and leave with a fresh perspective on land conservation. Through camps, research, seminars, tours, workshops and more, Bamberger’s mission is to teach others land ethics.
A few fun highlights on a trip to Selah include the Chiroptorium, a man-made bat cave that hosts hundreds of thousands of bats every summer, and an observatory with a telescope that processes celestial coordinates to track objects across the sky. Bamberger jokes that through it “you can see the flag on the moon.”
The next big attraction at Selah, the Margaret Bamberger Research and Education Center, is set to be completed later this year. In remembrance of his late wife, the building will serve as a research center for the foundation to complete a biological survey of every living thing at Selah. Professors from seven universities are assisting in this survey. The preserve can be classified as a whole ecosystem, and Bamberger looks forward to contributing to future wildlife research.
Gift to the community
Bamberger said all of Selah’s visitors can “pause and reflect upon what has been done” at the preserve: the very meaning of the Hebrew word. He wants to leave a legacy.
In order to protect the preserve, Bamberger and his wife registered it as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 2002. They also created a foundation that makes Selah eligible for grants and charitable contributions. The property will now stay true to its original character and function for many years to come.
“At 88, I won’t be here for much longer,” Bamberger said. “I know I’m leaving this whole ranch in confidence that our young, passionate staff will continue my teachings at Selah.”
To experience the ranch in person or learn more about the programs and projects at Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve, visit bambergerranch.org.