Friday, March 2, 2012

Week One: The adventure begins

I first met conservationist J. David Bamberger nearly 18 years ago on a press trip to his Blanco County ranch. I was 35, a harried mother of two little ones and writing at my desk in the corner of our living room. Now I'm 50-again (for the third time) and have my own office. Then and now, even reaching far back to my childhood, I've loved  nature. When I first visited with Mr. Bamberger, habitat restoration was a new concept to me. Native grasses, important? I had no clue. But with age, I've gradually built upon my knowledge of native flora and fauna, how ecosystems are complex and interconnected, why even so-called "weeds" matter.

So it seems that my start this month in the Texas Master Naturalist training with the Highland Lakes chapter has come at just the right time in my life. I'm so excited!

On Thursday, March 1, my 19 classmates and I attended orientation at the library in Kingsland, a small community northwest of Marble Falls. Which brings me back to Mr. Bamberger. He gave our informative and inspirational keynote address to kick off classes.

J. David Bamberger
Now 83 (and still in fabulous health!), Mr. Bamberger has made tremendous progress on his 5,500-acre ranch since I profiled him for Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine in the mid 1990s. Among his many, many honors for his land stewardship, he's proudest of winning the Leopold Conservation Award in 2009 (it helped that the award came with $10,000, he jokes).

Today, his Selah-Bamberger Ranch Preserve–once the "worst piece of real estate in Blanco County"–is said to be the largest habitat restoration project on public lands in Texas. "I've spent the last 43 years, demonstrating how a damaged piece of land can be restored," he told us. "Exercising patience when working with nature was one of my biggest challenges."

When he bought the rock-riddled, overgrazed ranch in 1969, ag experts warned him against raising cattle. "We dug seven water wells and never got a drop of water," Mr. Bamberger recalled. "The soil conservation guy said I'd need 41 acres to support one cow. We also had less than 50 bird species."

Today, the ranch's bird list stands at 218. What's more, five families live full-time on Selah, and every year several thousand guests visit and stay overnight in the ranch's lodge. "All because of habitat restoration," he said.

Where's the water coming from? Natural springs that returned after Mr. Bamberger and his team began selectively clearing Ashe junipers. "It was so thick that sunlight couldn't reach the ground," he said. "But for every cedar we took out, we got 38 back. We wore out 106 lopping shears! The lesson there: Never embark on an endeavor you don't intend to sustain–that applies to a business, marriage and Master Naturalist training!" (Everyone laughed.)

After clearing the junipers, Mr. Bamberger "scarified" the land to slow erosion. The scarification also caught native grass seeds that he distributed. Two and a half years later, the springs started running again. "Grass is the greatest conservation tool there is," he said. "Keep a grass covering on your ground, and you'll have water."

"This drought isn't over yet," he interjected. "You may not live long enough to the end of it either."

As a child, his mother, Hester, taught him about land stewardship and gave him a copy of Louis Bromfield's Pleasant Valley. Bromfield's chronicles of how he restored his family's ravaged Ohio farm inspired Mr. Bamberger to find and restore his own piece of land in Texas. Like Bromfield, Mr. Bamberger's conservation efforts have been chronicled in a book. In 2008, Texas A&M Press published Water for Stone: The Story of Selah,Bamberger Ranch Preserve by Jeffrey Greene.

Back when I first met him and still to this day, Mr. Bamberger shows visitors to Selah his "historical marker," a granite tombstone that stands within its own cemetery neatly fenced with iron rails and stone walls. Someone had given Mr. Bamberger the slab of stone. So he decided he'd have it inscribed. At first, the stonecutter offered his heartfelt condolences for the Bamberger family's loss. Then he read the epitaph he was to carve: In memory of man...2,000,000 B.C. - A.D. 20? He who once dominated the earth destroyed it with his own waste, his poisons and his own numbers.

"Bamberger," the man told him, shaking his head, "I've made tombstones for canaries, cats, dogs and horses, but this is the first time I've made one for the whole human race!" 

Our class curriculum sends us next Thursday to Wimberley, where we'll visit Jacob's Well and learn about our region's watersheds, groundwater and aquifers. In the 1950s, my Grandfather Smith retired in Wimberley on the Blanco River so I've visited Wimberley ever since I can remember. Later in life, as a reporter with the San Marcos Daily Record in the early '80s, I wrote news stories about Jacob's Well, then the site of numerous drownings. But this will be my first actual visit to the well, which has since been purchased by the Wimberley Vallety Watershed Association and become the Jacob's Well Natural Area. Can't wait!

1 comment:

CWPickens said...

I'm waiting for the day when I can do this training (still have a young one at home) - meanwhile I look forward to reading your reports!

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