The Grass is Greener

Water From Stone

In Notes on Virginia, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.” Under Jefferson’s Arcadian ideal, the constant communion between gentleman farmers and nature would create a self-reliant and virtuous America free of the mass corruption he perceived in Europe, where “mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.”

In contrast with Jefferson’s agrarian republic founded on states’ rights, Alexander Hamilton sought a strong, centralized government that would act in the interests of industry and commerce. Hamilton’s vision for an industrialized America ultimately came to pass, but Jefferson’s agrarian idealism still reflects how Americans like to see themselves.

In the second-largest state in the union, which also has the smallest percentage of public land, J. David Bamberger’s ranch preserve is a uniquely successful blend of Hamiltonian realism and Jeffersonian ideals, an exemplar of what can happen when sound business methods are applied to land conservation. In Water from Stone, author and brother-in-law Jeffrey Greene outlines Bamberger’s winding career, from door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman to Church’s Fried Chicken co-founder to internationally lauded conservationist.

While Bamberger’s business path is well detailed, the book’s major thrust focuses on how he used his resources and salesman’s ingenuity to promote conservation education, in Texas and around the world. As Greene writes, “His story is not inspirational because he attained considerable wealth through industry and imagination. … It is, however, inspiring because an early passion for nature instilled in him by his mother and his rural Ohio beginnings combined with entrepreneurial instincts led to an entirely unique approach to selling environmental causes.”

As a boy on his family’s modest Ohio farm, Bamberger was indelibly influenced by a copy of Louis Bromfield’s Pleasant Valley. Bromfield, a successful novelist and screenwriter, recounted his experiences revitalizing acres of neglected land into a self-sufficient farm, its fruits shared equally among its workers. Named “Malabar,” after India’s Malabar coast, Bromfield’s farm just south of Mansfield, Ohio, became an international destination. By day, crowds learned land cultivation and restoration techniques. By night, Bromfield hosted high-society parties in his stately home, most famously the 1945 wedding of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

Bromfield’s best-selling story made a lifelong impression on Bamberger. “Reading that book, Pleasant Valley, changed my life,” Bamberger recalls in Water From Stone. “No one before Bromfield talked about ‘habitat restoration.’ This was well before Rachel Carson and the others. After reading that book, I said to myself that if ever I make money, I want to do the same thing to a piece of land.”

Succeeding in the business world took Bamberger and his struggling family across the South and eventually to San Antonio. His fortune made, Bamberger bought 5,500 acres of ranchland near Blanco in the Hill Country. He was intent on following Bromfield’s lead in revitalizing abused land. “A real estate broker was taking me around, showing me these fancy homes with landing strips, swimming pools, and tennis courts. And I went, ‘No, no, no, you got me all wrong. I want a lousy piece of real estate. I want the worst thing you got. I want something nobody else wants,'” Bamberger recalls. “The broker looked at me and said, ‘Well, there’s a whole lot of that around.'”

Naming his land “Selah,” an Old Testament term meaning “pause and reflect,” Bamberger began turning back the clock on decades of neglect. Razing the prolific ashe juniper, which consumed most of the rainwater, Bamberger planted native grasses with fibrous roots to hold topsoil in place and replenish the Trinity aquifer. After managing to get Selah’s springs flowing again, Bamberger and his handpicked team began maverick experiments in land restoration: introducing a successful endangered species breeding program for scimitar-horned oryx, and building the world’s largest man-made bat cave for Mexican free-tails, dubbed the “Chiroptorium.” Bamberger also sold the state 505 acres of land that became the cornerstone of Guadalupe River State Park. Bamberger garnered worldwide press for his efforts, from the New Yorker to National Geographic, and worked briefly with former Gov. Ann Richards on developing Texas nature tourism.

Water From Stone is effective because it illustrates how a private citizen with no formal training in outdoor management can make a difference. Though Bamberger’s projects are on extremely large scales, his principles can be applied to any level of land ownership. As Greene writes, “Bamberger and Bromfield preached a similar message: the rewards of-and the ethical responsibility for-good land stewardship are the same whether one owns a 50,000-acre ranch or a postage-stamp sized piece of lawn in the city.”

With the proliferation of subdivisions and box stores, Bamberger believes the only way to protect endangered resources is for large tracts of land to remain essentially untouched. With small-scale farmers in constant financial peril and budget cuts crippling government parks, Bamberger contends that private ranch owners are in a unique position to take better care of the land than any government office, while making substantial profit from nature tourism.

Explaining to Congress how protecting endangered species can be both good stewardship and profitable, Bamberger noted, “I am aware of a ranch right here in the Hill Country that brought two groups to their ranch and earned $14,000 just for the bird-watching. And the primary reason that these two groups came to the ranch was to see the endangered golden-cheeked warbler and the endangered black-capped vireo.” Through programs at Selah that have revitalized endangered birds, animals like the scimitar-horned oryx, and flowers like the Texas snowbell, Bamberger has achieved successful conservation while turning a profit with tourist groups.

In a Wall Street Journal article on Selah, Ike C. Sugg, former executive director of the Exotic Wildlife Association, notes, “As Mr. Bamberger laments, ‘Altruism will not save the species.’ … Those with an economic stake in a natural resource have every reason to maximize that which is valuable, which means increasing wildlife numbers. It means preserving the genetic purity of the species, from which its value is often derived. And it means taking care of the land-a collateral ecological benefit.”

Bamberger has lobbied lawmakers to increase incentives for conservation-minded landowners. He was involved in passing 1995’s Proposition 11, a state constitutional amendment granting tax exemptions for land converted from livestock and crops to wildlife management. The widely used law has made land restoration more appealing for ranch owners.

With baby boomers retiring from the cities to small, gated ranches throughout the Hill Country, Water From Stone is an ideal read for landowners fresh from the business world. Bamberger’s negotiation skills-practiced on suspicious landowners worried about ecotourists invading their property, and animal rights activists who attack his hunting programs-reflect years of sales work and have proven the key to Selah’s success.

“The first four years I was making contacts,” Bamberger notes. “That was all legwork. It was like going back to my Kirby [vacuum cleaner salesman] days. It was kind of door-to-door. I’d go to a ranch that was in that part of the world and introduce myself and show them magazine stories. Tell them, ‘I’m a private landowner, just like you. I think we should be proactive and do something that we can hang our hat on.'”

Though largely successful, Bamberger’s business mindset once threatened to overpower his environmental concerns. Soon after Selah’s purchase, a lignite mining controversy erupted in Austin, causing Bamberger to send his crew scouring the land for possible mines. As Greene notes, “The mining company might have wanted lignite closer to San Antonio, and David dreamed of securing mineral rights and making an easy million. Fortunately, for David’s environmental record, Charlie found only 6-foot veins, not worth rolling back the earth to strip-mine it out.”

There are some inherent contradictions within Bamberger’s legacy-like profiting from real estate ventures in the San Antonio area while calling for fewer subdivisions, and selling cholesterol-ridden Church’s Fried Chicken in America’s inner cities while taking inner-city schoolchildren on educational tours through Selah, a practice he has dubbed “people ranching.”

Yet the scale of Bamberger’s environmental work would not have been possible without his business history. For idealistic boomers about to retire to small acreages across the state, Water From Stone, with its engaging stories and fine naturalist illustrations by Bamberger’s wife, provides an inspiring blueprint of how to cleanse one’s corporate soul with replenished waters.

Stayton Bonner is a writer in Austin.

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Published at 12:00 am CST