COMMENTARY: Preserving legacy of McAllen Nature Center

Ten years ago this month McAllen voters made a momentous decision to preserve an important part of the city’s natural heritage. They rejected two bond issues: one would have paved over the McAllen Nature Center to build a 40-court tennis center and the other would have sold adjacent Westside Park for retail development.

Although the plans had been packaged in the same bond with sorely needed sports facilities, some McAllen residents saw that clearing the McAllen Nature Center would mean the loss of important urban wildlife habitat, and that selling off Westside next door would mean breaking up the largest contiguous green space in the city. A grassroots group hastily organized, and dozens volunteered their time to raise awareness of what was at stake.

With only three weeks before the bond election, advocates photographed the area, researched its history, wrote articles, posted on social media, spoke to local press, participated in debates and talked to people at the polls.

They pointed out that the McAllen Nature Center protects the oldest remaining forest in the McAllen metro area. An aerial photograph from 1930 shows that at least half of the center’s 22 acres were densely forested even that far back. They also presented comparisons showing that McAllen has fewer acres of park space per capita than many cities in the Valley and in the rest of the state.

When the votes were counted on the evening of May 8, 2010, it was clear that McAllen residents got the message: both bond issues failed in all precincts and both parks were saved. We had thankfully voted to preserve something that was irreplaceable. The heated campaign sparked renewed interest and appreciation for the McAllen Nature Center, which had been dormant since the 1990s and had been completely closed to the public since 2006. Eventually the city reopened the park, hired staff and began a slow process of refurbishment.

Programs such as yoga and tai chi hosted under the park’s sprawling oak trees brought people in. Young naturalists in training were hired as guides who could teach visitors about Valley nature. Scout troops came for outdoor merit badges. Clubs volunteered removing invasive guinea grass.

Ten years later the park averages 20,000 visitors per year, and residents volunteer there 2,000 hours annually.

As more people visit, a new generation is discovering this remarkable place.

Now at 33 acres, McAllen Nature Center is the only place in the city where it is possible to get lost in nature. The dense forest muffles the sound of traffic, and the shady, winding trails can make visitors feel like they’re hiking in a much larger park. The acres of mature trees create an inviting habitat for birds, including Valley specialties and rare subtropical visitors that attract birders from around the world. Even mammals not typically seen in the city such as foxes and javelina have been spotted there.

McAllen residents appreciate the playgrounds and open spaces of our neighborhood parks and it is lovely to stroll the native gardens of Quinta Mazatlan, but only in the Nature Center is it possible to get a sense of Rio Grande Valley wilderness and to come into such direct contact with our natural heritage.

This year not only marks the 10th anniversary of the fateful bond election, it is also the McAllen Nature Center’s 60th birthday. In 1960 forward-thinking individuals came together to establish the McAllen Botanical Garden (later renamed the McAllen Nature Center) and preserve the remnant forest there.

The story of the McAllen Nature Center shows that preservation is an ongoing task and each new generation bears responsibility for maintaining and enhancing the legacy left by those who came before.

Stefanie Herweck is an environmentalist and blogger at Valley Green Space. She lives in McAllen.