ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
In central Texas, ranchers and environmentalists go together about as well as oil and water.
Well, NPR's Wade Goodwyn is going to take us to a ranch now where environmental stewardship is the driving force. It's run by a vacuum cleaner salesman turned fried-chicken tycoon.
WADE GOODWYN: Its 9 o'clock in the morning and half a dozen Texas hill country ranchers are sitting in a converted flatbed trailer about to take a tour of David Bamberger's 5,500-acre property.
Unidentified Man: (unintelligible)
Unidentified Woman: Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GOODWYN: They paid good money to learn how, over the last 40 years, Bamberger converted some of the most badly damaged and overgrazed hill country in Texas into a showpiece of environmental restoration.
Mr. WALTER JONAS(ph): My name is Walter Jonas(ph), and I own some property over by Wimberley. And it's got a lot of steep topography issues there where all the water runs off immediately.
Mr. RANDY LESTER(ph): Hi, my name is Randy Lester. I got a patch of land up there on Lake Buchanan, got a constant battle with cedars and prickly pear and persimmons.
GOODWYN: The first settlers to arrive in the Texas hill country wrote to their relatives that the grass came up to their horses' shoulders. And when the wind blew, it looked like ocean swells rolling across the landscape. What they didn't know was that once they rode west of Austin, they'd pass the 30-inch rainfall line. That grass was holding down a thin and fragile layer of topsoil. First they tried to farm it and when that failed, to ranch it with cattle and goats.
By the 1960s, overgrazing had reduced much of the hill country to a cedar-filled brush, most of the topsoil gone with the wind. It was exactly the kind of property David Bamberger was looking for, although he had a difficult time explaining that at first.
Mr. DAVID BAMBERGER (Environmental Conservationist): Realtors were trying to show me places with landing strips and big fancy houses, and I says, you got me all wrong. I'm not interested in this kind of stuff. I want something that nobody else wants. I want something that's been so beat up, so neglected.
GOODWYN: Bamberger finally found his derelict dream property near Johnson City west of Austin. He seemed an unlikely rancher. He started out in the 1940s selling vacuum cleaners door to door. A fellow salesman named Bill Church asked Bamberger to go into the fried-chicken business with him. The first chicken shack opened across the street from the Alamo.
Mr. BAMBERGER: Takeout all the way, no drive-throughs, no nothing. And it was quick and it was cheap. While he was selling two pieces of fried chicken for 49 cents, when KFC was selling the same two pieces, only smaller, for 79 cents. People loved it.
GOODWYN: By the late '60s, Church's Fried Chicken had exploded across Texas, and Bamberger's stake made him seriously rich. And it allowed him to try to fulfill his lifelong dream. It was a strange dream for a vacuum cleaner salesman. He wanted to devote much of the rest of his life to two words that almost nobody had heard of in 1969: habitat restoration. Huh? Habitat what? Forty years later you can look around and see exactly what he meant.
(Soundbite of squeaking)
GOODWYN: A visit to Bamberger ranch is like a trip back in time, instead of cedar brush and barren limestone breaking the soil surface, large hardwood trees surround grassy meadows, wild turkey and deer wander about in the open and bobcats lurk in the hollows hunting game. Year after year Bamberger has strategically restored his landscape, buying barrels of grass seed, throwing $5 handfuls into the wind from the back of his tractor.
(Soundbite of water)
GOODWYN: But most of what he has done is learn how to channel, collect and use the water that runs across his land. Steven Fulton works as a biologist at the ranch, and he gives daily tours to other hill country ranchers.
Mr. STEVEN FULTON (Biologist): Here's a (unintelligible) of the watershed of the Madrone Lake. So, if you guys pass it around.
GOODWYN: There are workshops on grasses, one on trees, another on restoring and managing wildlife. Many of those who come to learn or a new generation of landowners who have made their fortune in Austin's hi-tech industry. The locals call them Dellionaires because the first wave worked at nearby Dell Corporation. The traditional ranchers have been far more skeptical. Bamberger sounds too much like an environmentalist to them. But two years of hard drought have started to change that. Jacque Couser has more than 1,000 acres outside New Braunfels.
Ms. JACQUE COUSER: We were in a severe drought situation and we had to keep the cattle in, like, one area and now it's severely overgrazed. I mean, you can kill the land just like you can kill anything else.
GOODWYN: About 3,000 people a year tour Bamberger ranch, half of them school children. There are nature trails and hiking, an observatory, but this is still a working ranch with a 140-head of cattle and several hundred goats. If you think it's all good and well for a wealthy chicken magnate to restore his little piece of Texas hill country paradise, Bamberger says, don't make excuses.
Mr. BAMBERGER: You don't need a bulldozer. You need a chainsaw, wheelbarrow, axes, hand tools, and a lot of friends coming out from time to time - and a little time. You can buy used equipment don't waste your money on the new and you can accomplish on your property what I've done here.
GOODWYN: Bamberger ranch is a private ranch where tourists and workshops are provided most days by reservation.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.