Sunday, June 28, 2009

More Adventures with the Texas Snowbell

(Stryx Platanifolious var. Texanus)

I’ve talked about our response to the drought here on Selah in my blog of June 7, 2009, but the drought is not just here in Blanco County. It covers many other areas of Texas and the Southwest. Particularly hard hit are the counties of Real, Edwards, Uvalde and Kinney in the Nueces River watershed and Val Verde County in the Devils River watershed. These counties are where we have been planting the snowbells in our attempts to save the plant from extinction. We hope our efforts will get it removed from the Federal Endangered Species List. Due to the drought all of our snowbells planted in October 2008 had to be watered.

Watering invention. Photograph taken by Mary Candee.

We solved the problem of how to get water to the plant more efficiently than pouring it over the corral. The bucket was “plumbed” so that water came through the hose and could be directed to each individual plant. Duct tape held the hose in place on a 4 foot cedar limb. This is me directing the water to the individual plant while volunteer Ernie Sessums holds the water bucket and volunteer David Matthews looks on.

Lessons we learned. Photograph taken by Mary Candee.

We suffered a high percent of losses in our October 2008 plants because of the drought. We had gotten away from using weed barrier – a cost cutting action – and used “pasta” (that’s grass) – to suppress weeds. We had some weed barrier left over and noticed that the survival rate was so much better than the “pasta.” The weed barrier seemed to have prevented evaporation of the water we used in planting. We’re now back to using the weed barrier and layering our “pasta” over it.

Yellow Bluff Ranch. Photograph taken by Mary Candee.

They named this ranch Yellow Bluff. This beautiful spring fed water is Dolan Creek. In a quarter mile it joins the Devils River. This creek was my waterloo, the place where I slipped and fell while carrying steel post across it and ended up in the hospital with surgery on my right shoulder. This occurred in December 2008. I’ve not regained full use of that shoulder yet. The previous picture was taken on Yellow Bluff. I believe places like this are such a treasure. They hold us together, in spite of the very hard work.

Carrying Water. Photograph taken by Mary Candee.

This is another picture at Yellow Bluff. The water is from a major spring up the canyon. It must be producing 30 to 40 gallons per minute and delivers it to Dolan Creek. We’re all volunteers, left to right Dave Matthews, me and Ernie Sessums. It is rare that we have water this close to our planting site.

Predators. Photograph taken by Mary Candee.

These are Blister Beetles (Epicauta sp.). They are inside our corrals eating on mountain laurel. They like to feed on egg capsules of grasshoppers. They are crop pests that have been known to kill horses that ate hay in which the beetles had been baled. Their body fluid contains a substance that causes blisters when in contact with the skin. I guess they preferred the mountain laurel as our snowbells were not touched by them. I hope that holds true. We’ll know in mid July on our return to Yellow Bluff.

Blister Bug. Photograph taken by Mary Candee.

Here’s a close up of the blister bug. I don’t recall whose hand it is. One thing for sure, it wasn’t mine! I want to point out that the world is full of many critters that can frustrate any gardener.

Vantage Point. Photograph taken by J. David.

The kids who come to the ranch in great numbers call Steven Fulton, our biologist, “Big Steve.” He’s 6’8”. Aiden, his son, has a good vantage point. We are on Pinyon Ranch where we have planted 15 snowbells under harsh conditions. We found them all healthy and growing. Notice how dry things are. It was 103 degrees that day. The drought spares no one. The West Nueces runs through this ranch and it too is dry.

Good Parents. Photograph taken by J. David.

I admire Steven and Amanda for taking their son Aiden along on these trips. What a wonderful start in life for a little boy less than 3 years old! . . . As part of Steven’s research project for his Master’s Degree, the growth and health of every snowbell is recorded. Here, Steven measures and Amanda records.

Research. Photograph taken by J. David.

Another part of Steven’s research is to determine who the snowbells’ predators may be. To assist him in this, Steven has two digital motion cameras mounted near colonies of naturally occurring snowbells. Once a month he downloads any images into his laptop and replaces the batteries in the cameras. Here, pictured with Paula Smith of Dobbs Run Ranch, they discover who browsed on the plants. So far in the study he has pictures of an exotic animal, the Aoudad sheep.

Ready to Leave. Photograph taken by JDavid.

Ernest and Paula Smith, owners of Dobbs Run, along with Steven and Aiden examine our equipment. The Smiths have been very good cooperators on this project. Dobbs Run is where we planted the very first snowbell in October 2003. They have 46 there now. They have provided us many meals and excellent accommodations. We laugh together, even though it was somewhat a slight when in the book Water From Stone Jeffrey Greene described their guest accommodations as “reasonably comfortable sleeping quarters.”

Ernie Lounging. Photograph taken by JDavid.

This was Ernie Sessums first working trip as a volunteer. He lives in San Antonio. After 3 days of 100+ temperatures, carrying water over rocks through thick brush and down into steep canyons, he relaxes with a cold beer after a shower at Dobbs Run. Look at that smile, you wouldn’t know that he’s exhausted. All who have worked with us on this project have enjoyed the hospitality of the many landowners who have cooperated with us.

Via Con Dios. Photograph taken by J. David.

Prior to leaving Dobbs Run I took this photograph. It’s always somewhat sad to leave this ranch. There’s just something about it that feels so good. Left to right: Paula and Ernest Smith, Amanda, Aiden and Steven Fulton and Ernie Sessums.

Seeing Old Friends. Photograph taken by Ernie Sessums.

What a greeting I got upon arriving at Dolan Falls! Mary Weigel, whom I had not seen in 10 years, was at Dolan Falls with her family. Mary is a biologist and her husband, Jeff Weigel, is a longtime executive with The Nature Conservancy. Mary took many of the photos on this blog. She is also a professional photographer.

Three Musketeers. Photograph taken by Mary Candee. (David Matthews, J. David, Ernie)

All of the long hours and hard work with the Texas snowbells becomes so very satisfying when the work is done. It’s what memories are made of. Perhaps very few will know what we did or what we’ve experienced in our effort to save just this one plant from extinction. We, who gave time and effort, made many new friends and had what I call luxury experiences in places hidden from most people’s view. In the picture from left to right: David Matthews, volunteer and 5th grade science teacher at Small Middle School in Austin, myself, and my son-in-law, Ernie Sessums a volunteer from San Antonio. We are on a high deck overlooking Dolan Falls on the Devils River in Val Verde County.

Day’s End. Photograph taken by J. David.

Pictured left to right: Steven and Amanda Fulton, Mary Weigel with little Aiden Fulton and David Matthews on the deck at Dolan Falls.

Dolan Falls is owned by The Nature Conservancy. At one time the ranch was over 25,000 acres, but large tracts have been sold off to conservation buyers. I believe they still hold 10,000 or more acres. It’s this property that has the largest colony of mature Texas snowbells. Thus far, all of our Devils River plantings have come from seeds collected here. We have discovered two mature plants across the river on an 8,000 acre private ranch, but we have not as yet collected seed there.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Bamberger Ranch's Camp Selah

This was our sixth year for our nature adventure camp. It is a five day, four night intensive nature camp designed for those children who have an affinity for the natural world. It is science oriented. Mary Kay Sexton, a fifth grade science teacher at St. Andrews School in Austin, organized the camp and is assisted by David Matthews who teaches at Small Middle School in Austin. Many volunteers with knowledge, skills and experience come to share with the campers such things as snakes from Jared Holmes, rehabilitated raptors from our long time friend, Sallie Delahoussaye, and Rico Reyes, an entomologist, with bugs and spiders. All are great people, great educators. We’re lucky to have them join us at camp.

Adapting to Change

The only life forms that don’t adapt to a changing environment go extinct. If you’ll refer to my blog posting of June 7 entitled “Drought”, you’ll understand that one of the more fun things at camp is a few hours each day in the springwaters of Madrone Lake. The lake is down so low that the campers had to take a canoe out to the middle where the water was still eight foot deep. I worried about the health of the water, so Colleen took samples to the Edwards Aquifer Research & Data Center at Texas State University to check for e. coli and fecal coliform. The report was “perfectly swimmable even drinkable.”

Kids in canoe. Photograph taken by Dixie Gadna.

Bat Emergence

Bat Emergence. Phototgraph taken by J. David.

At 8:05 in the evening the bats come pouring out of our chiroptorium. Many people have experienced an emergence, but very few have ever witnessed the return of the bats in the very early morning . . . our campers have and here are their testimonies

In their own words

Justin showed us the bats and explained their feeding patterns. Justin also told me about one of the most amazing experiences in my life, the bats’ return to the cave. In this experience, hundreds of bats dived from the sky to the cave, opening their wings about once every hundred feet. – Hugo Cristopher Nakashima-Brown

I hope I can come back next year. The food is awesome. The bats are awesome. – Mason Evarts

Justin, thanks for telling us about the bat return – seeing those specks swirl down into plummeting bats may be my most profound Selah moment, and I know I’ll never forget it. – Emma Hine

Thank you all for creating such a wonderful place, especially the chiroptorium. – Anonymous Camper

I’d like to thank Justin for showing us the bat cave and telling us when they come back in the morning. After he told us that, we went to the cave at 6:30 and got to see the bats flying right over our heads and into the cave. – Amandah Reyes

Justin thank you for teaching us about bats. - Will

I really appreciate all that you two have taught us about bats. Justin, seeing the bats return in the morning was on everyone’s top 10 list. I’m so glad you told us about that! – Dixie Gadna

Justin thank you for your encouraging words and teaching us about bats, their arrival was a real spectacle! – Frankie Torres

Our nature camp is totally held outdoors. Here, David Matthews holds a class on the patio. Photograph taken by Justin Duke.

One thing David always talks about is plants to avoid on the ranch. Here he is with poison ivy. Photograph taken by Justin Duke.

Backyard birding. Early morning nature study includes birding. Since I have feeders out it was a quite easy and comfortable way to bird. Photograph taken by J. David.

A day off the ranch to study dinosaur tracks in the limestone of the Blanco River Bottom. The big elephant like footprint of the long neck pleurocoelus is 39 inches in diameter. One of my friends told me his mother walked him and his brothers down to the river and the dinosaur tracks was their bathtub! Photograph taken by Amanda Fulton.

The Blanco River also provided some interesting searching for snakes and aquatic insects. The little fellow is 2½ year old Aiden Fulton – starting young! Photograph taken by Amanda Fulton.

Steven Fulton, Ranch Biologist, with a turtle the campers brought to him. Sorry, I don’t know what kind of turtle. Photograph taken by Justin Duke.

A dam on the Blanco River provided a real good place to swim. What a day! Photograph by Amanda Fulton.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Surviving the Drought

In January 2008 we recognized that “a prolonged period of dry weather, a lack of rain” was ahead of us. Scott Grote, our ranch operations manager, said four pastures were no longer useable as there was no water; even wildlife was suffering in these pastures. It was apparent to us that our education programs and people ranching activities as well as water for those of us who live here was in peril.

Our response was “A Plan for the Future – Maximizing the Use of Rainfall on the Bamberger Ranch Preserve.” The following is excerpted from the plan:

“We know that the Hill Country’s creeks, springs and even rivers do not flow as they did long ago. We know that less than 200 years ago there was much more soil and grass on the hillsides than there is today. It was this healthy, yet fragile, ecosystem that allowed rainfall to percolate into the limestone studded hills giving birth to the seeps, springs, creeks and rivers that draw people to Blanco County and the Hill Country.

Agriculturally, the Hill Country is a non-starter. The hills and rocky terrain make it an expensive place to farm and ranch. Rainfall, though it averages 30 inches per year, is undependable as to when it falls and therefore, recent history shows floods and droughts on a regular basis. Weather temperature patterns, too, have been showing extremes. Yet the beauty of the Hill Country has strong appeal to the urbanites from Austin, San Antonio, Houston, Dallas as well as other parts of the United States.

The year 2007 marked the 50th anniversary of the use of the words “global warming” and “climate change.” On a world wide basis these two phrases are widely used and nearly all of the world’s scientists attest to its happening. I believe we are now experiencing its affects here on Selah.

Blanco County is listed as a critical groundwater district, unfortunately for us who live here, Selah Bamberger Ranch is at the very center of the most critical part. Our restoration example is well known and applauded, yet at the same time we are facing a crisis. My idea is to take an inventory of our water sources and to enhance them and to initiate many other creative practices that maximize the use of rain that falls on these 5,500 acres as well as to encourage conservation.

Wall Street and Water

The stock market is said to be out ahead of events – that in our capitalistic economy it’s a predictor of the future. Well, the market is predicting U.S. and worldwide water shortages and old established companies, like General Electric, Dow Chemical, and DuPont, are investing heavily in everything from desalination plants to filter membranes. Foreign companies from Germany, South Korea, Japan, Switzerland, Spain, Singapore, Italy, and Austria are all into water technology with water purification equipment. These companies have built over 13,000 desalination plants around the world, some even in the U.S. San Antonio is currently considering one.

Americans spent 11 billion dollars on bottled water in 2006. In 1987 Americans drank only 5 gallons of bottled water per person. But by 2006, we consumed 27.6 gallons each – about a billion bottles a week! It is said that 40 percent of the countries’ rivers and streams are too polluted for swimming or fishing, let alone for drinking. Among the risks of drinking water are arsenic, gasoline additives, 82 different pharmaceuticals and fertilizer runoff. The nation’s tap water contains at least 10 different pollutants. Water wars are occurring across America, in the courtroom and in combat, pitting neighbor against neighbor. We encountered one such incident while in Brackettville on a snowbell search.

Fortunately for us at Selah, we can eliminate all of the pollutants and enjoy the healthiest water anywhere. We must take the initiatives now to maximize rainfall capture and storage, as well as, to promote and carry out conservation measures.


An aquifer is a body of rock that can store and transmit significant quantities of water. We describe Selah as having a “perched aquifer.” The reality is that this perched aquifer does not hold significant quantities of water and we do not have ownership or control over how it may be tapped into. Geologists would perhaps be generous to say that ours is a secondary aquifer. Nevertheless, our “perched aquifer”, at the present, is the sole source of water for our personal survival and the continuation of our “people ranching” and education programs. While we can’t control how much rain will fall on Selah, we can take steps to increase the amount that stays here.”

Twenty-five Actions to Sustainability

  • Build 1,000 mini dams in every runoff area

  • Add concrete cisterns to achieve 50,000 gallon of storage

  • Rainwater collection on existing buildings

  • Selective tree removal on the watersheds of our springs

  • Construct 12 miles of recharge water pans on our plateaus

  • Construct 28 miles of stone berms on downhill sides of the plateaus

  • Devise a system to transfer water across the divide from west to east

  • Build solar toilets (They do not use water.)

  • Reduce cattle herd

  • Water delivery for wildlife

  • Rainwater only at cattle pens

  • Inspect and repair current spring boxes

  • Explore all canyons for potential seeps to develop

  • Engineer Madrone Lake for potential potable water supply

  • Monitor water production weekly on all cased springs

  • Construct French drains

  • Prescribed burns

  • Add earthen and concrete dams

  • Divert runoff to existing ponds and sinkholes

  • Convert to low flush toilets, low water washing machines and low water shower heads

  • Check old inoperative water wells for potential use

  • Build more recharge ponds

  • Closely monitor native grasslands

  • Riparian improvements

  • Add overflow pipes on all cisterns to pipe overflow water to tanks and ponds

Thousands of stones were picked up to form these berms. There are six berms on the downhill slopes that slow down runoff and intercept soil. Photograph taken by J. David.

Volunteers from the Austin Trail Tamers began the project which calls for 28 miles of berms. One mile has been completed. Photograph taken by Susan Sander.

Twelve miles of these “water pans” are planned. One half mile is completed. These require a bulldozer. They are on the tops of the hill. Cross bars of stone were placed every 30 feet to keep the runoff from flowing to the lowest level. Photograph taken by J. David Bamberger.

The water pans all worked. This water took 48 hours to percolate into the limestone. There was no runoff. Photograph taken by Justin Duke.

One hundred twenty feet below the hilltop water pans and stone berms you can witness the result. Crystal clear and clean water forms this pool for wildlife and livestock. Photograph taken by J. David.

Spigots allow us to measure how much water is produced as well as direct water to our storage tanks. Photograph taken by J. David.

This concrete casement encloses a crack in the stone where water flows out. It prevents cave-ins that might change the water’s path and keeps the water clean. The spigots allow us to measure the volume produced. 48 hours after a 2.1 inch rain, volume from the casement increased a quart per minute. It measured 1 ¼ gallons per minute; that’s 1,800 gallons for a 24 hours. Photograph taken by J. David.

Designated by the pink flags is a forty foot French drain. This collects from a seep and in prolonged dry periods it will dry up, but immediately after a rain it produces a gallon every three minutes. Since this is not potable water, it’s directed into the water feature shown in the previous picture. Photograph taken by J. David.

We built this sluice to carry the overflow water to the earthen pond. Photograph taken by J. David.

This pond is kept fresh and clean by the overflow sluice. The sluice also is an excellent bird waterer as well as an attractive landscape feature. Photograph taken by J. David.

Some of the water pans deliver water to sinkholes which provide instant recharge. Photograph taken by Susan Sander.

This aerial photograph of the project was provided by volunteer aircraft owner and pilot, Jerry Gatlin, and photographer, Chris W. Johnson. Photograph taken by Chris W. Johnson.

Steven Fulton engineered and built with the assistance of Justin Duke this water transfer system. It is solar powered. Since the west side of the ranch is across a divide, any rainwater falling on it drains to the Blanco River. All of our homes and facilities except one are located on the east side of the divide. Photograph taken by J. David.

These two solar powered pumps lift the water 150 feet and then it travels gravity flow 3,000 feet to our “people ranching” cisterns. Photograph taken by J. David.

NOTE – To appreciate this work even more, you may want to look at my blog posting from June 7, 2009. It’s about the drought and clearly demonstrates the need for these actions.

Sunday, June 7, 2009


“A prolonged period of dry weather, a lack of rain” as defined by Webster Dictionary.

If you could be here today walking the land as I am, you would see verdant hills and valleys. It’s still spring and we had a quarter inch of rain earlier this week. The native grasses respond within 48 hours, brown turns green. But looks can be deceiving as the following pictures show.

I was new to Texas in 1950 when a gas station attendant noticed my Ohio license plate and asked me how I liked Texas. My response was very positive. He replied, “Well, if you like it now, you’ll really like it when it rains.” This was my first experience of a drought. But fifty-nine years later, I’ve come to learn from experience the value of every drop of rain that falls and to appreciate conservation and land management principles that allow us to have water for ourselves, for livestock and wildlife . . . But even with all the land management practices we’ve implemented, there is a limit to how long our fragile “perched or local aquifer” can meet our needs. As the dictionary definition says, we are deeply into “a prolonged period of dry weather” and this has been exacerbated by above normal temperatures and high winds.

The creek that kept Madrone Lake at a fairly constant level stopped running in late July 2008. Photograph taken by Lois Sturm.

The lack of fresh water combined with high temperatures heats the remaining water which depletes oxygen and encourages bacteria growth which most likely caused the death of this three foot triploid carp. Photograph by J. David.

The Bromfield Trail is one of my favorite trails. We used to sit on the stone outcroppings with our feet in the water. It was our thinking spot with the limestone bottom and the sight and sound of the crystal clear water flowing through it. The water disappeared in September 2008. Photograph taken by J. David.

The Bridge to Nowhere. An unusual name! Justin and Poncho built this bridge for us when water was flowing under it. They were unaware that we are designing a trail to start there. As you can see the creek is bone dry and has been since October 2008. Photograph taken by J. David.

Carter Tank. This was originally built by a previous owner of the ranch whose last name was Carter. We have worked on it a number of times because it didn’t hold water. We’ve also enlarged it. Under normal rainfall years it is 25 feet deep and backs water up the draw. The tires are not trash! They are put there to protect fish spawn. The two cement cisterns store our drinking water. Each holds 5,000 gallons piped in from one of our spring boxes unseen further up the draw. They have float valves that divert the water into Carter Tank when the tanks are full. Photograph taken by J. David.

Dependable Clay. We’ve put no name on this small tank. This is a remarkable stock tank entirely dependent on runoff water from the surrounding hillside. Leroy has cut ditches 100 feet long that direct runoff water to the pond. What’s remarkable is the bed of clay that forms the bowl – this clay is impermeable. The only draw down is from livestock and surface evaporation. Finding this kind of clay is somewhat rare. In spite of this good material, the pond will be dry if we don’t get some rain soon. Photograph taken by J. David.

Oryx Pasture. This pasture is set aside for the exclusive use of our herd of Scimitar horned Oryx. They are a sub Saharan antelope from Africa that can go as long as 90 days without water. This tank is normally kept full from runoff as well as spring water piped to it. You can tell by the green vegetation and the cracks in the earth that there hasn’t been water here for months. Not to worry. We do have a number of watering troughs throughout this pasture. Photograph taken by J. David.

Four Cypress. Once again we haven’t named this small cattle and wildlife drinking spot. There was a small seep that we discovered above it 35 years ago, as well as, a small swale in the land above that would direct water to the pond. It worked so well until this drought. As you can see, there is not more than a week’s water left. The four cypress trees might not survive the summer. These were “planted” 14 years ago by throwing the seeds on the water! Photograph taken by J. David.


These pictures are but a few that show how critical our water problem has become. Wildlife, cattle and even we who live here are threatened. I believe this to be the worst drought of the century. Our Texas Forest Service agent, Robert Edmonson, stated that we have lost over 1,000 Spanish Oaks so far and other species are showing stress. Is the current condition a harbinger of the future? Is this our first sign of climate change?

Tune in next week to see some of the unique and innovative methods we are doing to sustain all life here at Selah.

AAS: Once-Parched Ranch is Conservation Model

There's an article about the ranch in today's Austin American Statesman: Once-Parched Ranch is Conservation Model. [Thanks Brendan.]