J. David Bamberger sprints down a trail on his Hill Country ranch, drawn toward a cluster of trees ablaze in fall color.
“Another maple, another maple,” the white-haired but spry 85-year-old whoops and hollers. “You just have to look at this. It’s unbelievable!”
For one day each fall, Bamberger opens the gates at Selah Bamberger Ranch Preserve, inviting the public to soak up the crimson, orange and yellow canopy on his land, now a nonprofit conservancy.
“Look at that, David. They have come out!” says Joanna Rees, trotting close behind. They each grab a branch from a bigtooth maple and kiss the fiery, five-lobed leaves.
Bamberger — a former door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman who became a millionaire when he and his partner franchised Church’s Fried Chicken in 1969 — bought this property south of Johnson City almost 45 years ago. He paid $124 an acre for the eroded, rocky parcel, which was overgrown with ashe juniper and cactus and stressed by decades of overgrazing.
What happened next is practically legendary in environmental circles. Bamberger ripped out the invasive species, including much of the ashe juniper, replanted native grasses and began more carefully managing the livestock. The land rebounded. Springs that were dry started running again, more and more birds showed up, and native species thrived.
The 5,500-acre ranch now serves as a model, demonstrating to other rural landowners that they too can transform their land. In 2009, the nonprofit received the Leopold Conservation Award, the state’s top land stewardship award.
Bamberger caught the bigtooth maple bug in the early 1990s. Over the years he’s planted 408 of the showy trees, some of which now stand 40 feet tall. He’s carefully tagged and numbered each one, and recorded its planting date.
They’re the same type of trees that draw throngs of leaf peepers to Lost Maples State Natural Area near Vanderpool every fall. That population is the largest natural concentration of bigtooth maples in Texas, but Bamberger believes his is the largest introduced population. And with nine more saplings ready to go into the ground, he’ll raise his count to 417 by next week.
“People say I’m crazy, but I’m building a forest,” he says, blue eyes flashing. “I planted every one myself.”
Bamberger credits his mother with instilling in him a love of trees. The family grew up simply in rural Ohio, with no electricity or running water. They spent countless hours outdoors. “Her love was trees. My love is trees,” Bamberger says.
The maples have proven hardy. Bamberger says he lost about 2,000 Spanish oaks to drought in 2011, but just one bigtooth maple. The trees grow well in rocky soil, and are relatively drought and heat tolerant. The biggest challenge is keeping white-tailed deer from snacking on their foliage.
The trees’ color typically peaks in early November, but Bamberger worries that Saturday’s tour might have come a week too early. As he hikes, he apologizes because not all the trees are fully ablaze yet.
“I’m sorry it’s not every tree, but that’s Mother Nature,” he tells a couple as they stop to admire a particularly vibrant tree. “They were all supposed to be like this.”
Still, the show is enough to draw ooohs and aaahs from those who come to look.
“Don’t go to Vermont to see the maples,” Bamberger says. “Come to Selah.”
How to visit
Selah Bamberger Ranch Preserve is located six miles south of Johnson City, just west of the intersection of U.S. 281 and U.S. 290. Public ranch tours are offered several times a year. The next tours are scheduled for March 8 and April 12. For information, go to http://bambergerranch.org/.