In the Beginning…
In 1969 J. David Bamberger sought to buy the worst piece of ranchland he could find in the Hill Country with the specific intention of restoring it back to functional health. Over the last 45 years the 5,500 acre ranch has become one of the largest habitat restoration projects in the state, winning numerous awards (Soil and Water Conservation Service, Texas Forest Service, National Arbor Day Foundation, the Nature Conservancy of Texas, Texas Wildlife Association, Leopold Conservation Award, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Lone Star Land Steward, National Private Lands Fish and Wildlife Stewardship Award, to name a few).
With the removal of Ashe juniper and the replanting of native grasses, long absent springs are now constantly flowing. The major spring produces an average of 3 gallons per minute (4,320 gallons/day) and furnishes all the water used by the Ranch and the Center, three households as well as for agricultural use. Overflow from this spring along with other smaller springs and seeps produce the headwaters of Miller Creek which flows into the Pedernales River, which then flows into the Colorado River, the surface supply for the City of Austin 60 miles away.
Then and Now: A Natural Perspective
Bamberger Ranch’s original purchase of 3,000 acres in 1969 is where the majority of the cedar clearing took place. The remaining 2,500 acres was purchased in pieces over the next several years to what is now a 5,500 acre habitat restoration and wildlife preserve.
Early bird surveys 30 years ago documented under 50 species. As birds are good “indicator species”, you can glean an idea of what kind of condition your land is in. The current species list is up to 216 species, demonstrating diversity and vast improvement in habitat conditions. When the ranch was predominantly a cedar brake, that is basically one type of habitat – forest. When you clear out and add native grasses, you basically expand your habitat range to 3 habitats: forest (as there is still about 5-10% of the ranch in a cedar brake type of condition), grassland, and then edge habitat – where the forest and grasslands meet – which is extremely important to a variety of wildlife species. Total counts now include the bald eagle and the golden eagle, but probably more important for the Texas Hill Country, we consistently have nesting pairs of two endangered song birds: the Golden Cheeked Warbler and the Black cedar thickets Capped Vireo – both of which were not documented here prior to habitat restoration. More than 25 total sightings of nesting pairs of the GCW were documented in 2005.
Deer harvested over 40 years ago had an average field dress weight of 55 pounds. The deer were very small and unhealthy, due to lack of forage diversity. Bucks now consistently field dress at an average of 115 pounds with the record in 2013 being 156 pounds.
Cattle, in 1969, did not have much grass to eat when the ranch was predominantly covered in ashe juniper. Soil Conservation Agents told J. David he could run one animal unit per 41 acres. An “animal unit” is one cow, or 6 goats. Now when rainfall conditions are good, we could if we chose to run an animal unit per 21 acres. (However, for the past several years we have experienced frequent and lengthy droughts and the decision was made in December 2011 to remove all the cows and goats for a 2-year period to rest our pastures.) Most importantly, prior to habitat restoration, there was no surface water or live creeks on the ranch when Mr. Bamberger purchased the property. He even tried to start his own water well drilling business – drilling 7 wells around the ranch 500 feet deep and did not get a drop of water. The only reason he did not go 501 feet deep is because in the 1970’s, that’s as far as the drill bits would reach. However, once he began removing woody species and replacing them with native grasses, springs and seeps began to appear.
Now we have 27 stock tanks (or ponds and lakes) and countless springs. Eleven of our artesian springs are “cased” in order to utilize for houses or livestock. Miller Creek originates on the Bamberger Ranch – we are the top of it’s watershed – and Miller Creek runs year-round now except in times of extreme drought conditions. But even in times of drought, the most important springs that supply all the water to 4 households, our Center and two cabins have never gone dry since habitat restoration. The work and history of the Bamberger Ranch Preserve is attributable in large part to the original employees: Leroy Petri, ranch engineer; William “Buddy” Francis, Livestock manager; Randy Lenz, Wildlife Manager; and Jim Rhoades, arborist. Randy left the ranch in 1999 to pursue the real estate industry and Buddy retired after 27 years with the ranch in 2000. Leroy is still with the Bamberger Ranch, having worked with J. David since 1970, and Jim Rhoades is past board member and continues to advise and participate in workshops on the ranch.
The Very Model of a Modern Conservation Ranch
Bamberger Ranch has become a recognized model of habitat restoration and land stewardship, not only for local landowners but also policy makers working on water issues. For more than 3 decades the ranch has offered meeting space for environmental groups, hosted school field trips and stewardship workshops for thousands of participants.
The Bamberger Ranch hosts an average of 3,000 visitors annually through school programs, group tours and landowner workshops. However, the income generated from agricultural practices, educational programs, grants and donors does not offset the total costs of operation. In 2002, in order to protect the ranch from future development, J. David and Margaret Bamberger filed for 501(c)(3) status and created the Bamberger Ranch Preserve and established a 15-member board of directors for the ranch. Presently, there are four full-time staff in addition to J. David (who works without compensation). Consequently, the Board of Directors and staff are building an endowment fund that will be able to sustain the ranch in perpetuity. Looking into the future, it is the goal of the Bamberger Ranch Preserve to increase educational opportunities to Hill Country area school children, particularly to those who do not have a grandfather or parent who owns a ranch or large tract of land. Increasingly, area schools are under-funded and do not have money to take children on off-campus field trips. Additionally, many schools are not performing well on the annual standardized TAKS tests for math, language arts and science. The staff of the Bamberger Ranch Preserve believes that they are in a unique position to offer outdoor experiences that meet testing requirements; they have the staff, the knowledge, the volunteer resources and the impressive outdoor classroom with which to take students classroom teachings and apply them to the outdoor world. We are also certified by the State Board of Education.
There is growing research supporting the benefit of outdoor education. In ongoing studies by the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, researchers have discovered tantalizing evidence for a new view of the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) syndrome. In a 2004 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, the laboratory found that children as young as five showed a significant reduction in ADHD symptoms when they engaged with nature. The Bamberger Ranch is perfectly positioned to affect a long-lasting impact on the students and teachers through outdoor experience and education about the natural world. It is these types of experiences that motivate teachers and possibly influence students to seek careers in the sciences.
The Bamberger Ranch Preserve aims to make this organization have a profound experience on all who visit, landowners, school children and teachers alike. Natural areas around the state and the nation are many times commercialized and overcrowded and thus, over run. It may be said that the Bamberger Ranch Preserve is the last remaining natural open space that is not cluttered with gift shops, vending machines, cell phone towers and other signs of urban civilization. The goal of the individuals who love, operate, work on and live on the Preserve is to change lives through education and be examples so that the visitors who leave Bamberger Ranch Preserve will love, appreciate and protect Mother Nature in their own daily lives. Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve: “Nature. Pure an Simple.”