Archive for the ‘Save the Forest! Save the Park!’ Category

By Stefanie Herweck

We were greeted by the same family of Harris’ hawks who came out to meet us on our very first visit to the McAllen Botanical Garden.  Three months later, the two juveniles have much more of their adult plumage.  And something else has changed.  At our first meeting the youngsters just hunkered down in the tall Tepehuaje trees near the entrance and watched us warily.  This time they took flight along with their parents, and we were treated to a 4-hawk show of aerial acrobatics.

Juvenile Harris’ hawks born and raised in the McAllen Botanical Garden

Watching them wheeling and diving and passing near one another midair in the cloudless sky, it was easy to imagine the young birds experimenting with new moves on the wind, perfecting their form, and learning new skills.  It was hard not to think that they were experiencing something equivalent to joy in this.

Walking into the forest, we were engulfed by the noise of the cicadas.  The forest nearly vibrated with the buzz, and the usual small, sudden sounds of doves flapping and lizards scurrying were drowned out.  A few Garden residents were not intimidated, however.  The loud, clear, and creative songs of long-billed thrashers were audible over the background roar every so many yards along the trails.  As we walked out of earshot of one bird’s song perch, we would begin to hear his neighbor’s song.

One of the long-billed thrashers that serenaded us in the McAllen Botanical Garden

Before this visit, I had been reading about the history of the McAllen Botanical Garden.  The original idea to preserve a piece of old growth forest in the Rio Grande Valley was ahead of its time when the Botanical Garden was established in 1960, and the 60s and 70s saw the development of a Botanical Garden and conservation area to be proud of.  However, the Garden’s last 30 years have largely been characterized by neglect and deterioration which culminated in  it finally closing to the public several years ago.

It’s a depressing story.  But this hike reminded me that, although the Botanical Garden has been lost to us as a park for humans, its status as a habitat for animals has only been enhanced over the decades.  The forest that was already mature and worth conserving in 1960, is older still and more diverse today.

It is a tragedy that politics, ignorance and apathy have kept a generation of our children from experiencing nature in the McAllen Botanical Garden.  But while it declined as a park, many generations of Harris’ hawks have nevertheless tested their wings in its summer skies, and countless thrashers have sung countless summertime songs from its forest perches.  This is something to take pride in, to be thankful for, and to celebrate.


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When the City of McAllen voted to keep its old-growth forest on Saturday, May 8, it voted to keep its birds!  Here are just some of the dozens of species that find habitat in the garden.  All photos were taken in the McAllen Botanical garden. 

Baltimore oriole. Photo by Marissa Latigo.

Golden fronted woodpecker. Photo by Stefanie Herweck.

Cedar waxwings. Photo by Stefanie Herweck.

Summer tanager. Photo by Stefanie Herweck.

Brown-crested flycatcher. Photo by Stefanie Herweck.

Indigo bunting. Photo by Stefanie Herweck

Couch's or tropical kingbird. Photo by Stefanie Herweck.

Immature Harris' hawk. Photo by Stefanie Herweck.

Cardinal. Photo by Marissa Latigo.

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By Carol Goolsby

I just found out that 20 million supporters of the bond are all meeting underground at this very moment chewing on a celebration party if McAllen proceeds to build a tennis center at the Botanical Gardens! Alarming news! Perhaps it’s 20 x 20 million! (Impossible to count.) They’re our leaf cutter ants! They come out in force and defoliate all of our yard trees. They systematically cut and carry leaves into their underground chambers to feed a fungus colony hiding in the soil, which then their entire colony proceeds to eat. Above ground, urbanites watch vexed as the leaves slowly disappear from their trees and enormous mounds build up in their yards.

Leaf cutter ants with leaves (wikipedia)

Ever wonder why cutter ants aren’t doing the same damage in the botanic garden? Does anyone know which one of our soon to be displaced noble native animals is keeping them in check there…and where that animal actually LIVES in that forest? (We used to have tons of these natural predators around the Valley, standing on guard…right outside the cutter ant mounds…waiting to gobble them up.) Does anyone know?

This point sits idle and invisible at the crux of the debate: the lack of understanding of ecosystem, its members, and the consequences if we disturb its balance….the lack of education. How many people do we even have left who actually KNOW what’s supposed to be living here. How many native animals of this town can YOU name? List the birds. List the butterflies. Then try to name the plants, not just the trees, but the shrubs, the forbs, and the grasses…the lichens, the molds, the mollusks, the annelids. (“The what?” you ask.) Then draw the lines connecting them all to one another. How much do you even know?

In the long run, places like the Botanic Garden are a storehouse of answers. Biological, natural answers to urban pest problems in the future, whether they are invasive weeds, overzealous ants, or alarming numbers of grackles on the electric wires up and down 10th Street. Answers to reestablishing a balance in nature can only be found in whatever patches of intact ecosystem we have left–answers that will be our best alternative to continuous use of more and more control chemicals, inside our homes, and outside in our yards.

We could build a Tennis Center on the Botanical Garden and then put out signs about the animals and plants that used to be native to McAllen….  Or we could just not squeeze them out, and instead save those animals and plants, by preserving the Botanical Garden, a natural area housing knowledge that could improve our quality of life far into the future.

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By Stefanie Herweck

It was around dusk when a group of us were walking out of the McAllen Botanical Garden.  We had stopped by the tallest trees in the canal to talk when a grey hawk (Buteo nitidus) flew over the trees and wheeled around us overhead chased by a smaller bird.  The grey hawk is a light colored bird, and seemed to glow in the last light of the setting sun.  I was very excited, as I have only seen grey hawks a handful of times.  And of course, each time it has been far away from the city, either walking in a refuge tract or canoeing on the Rio Grande.

Grey hawk photo from wikipedia

It wasn’t hard to determine how the bird drama played out.  As we stood under the trees and talked about the hawk, feathers began to rain down over us.  White down was drifting through the air like snow, brown tail and flight feathers were whirligigging down faster.   This was a completely mundane and common thing in  nature.  Just another meal for a raptor, just the end of a short life for a nestling.  But for us, in the middle of the city, about to get in our cars and drive home as the streetlights and store signs flickered on, it was a magical event.

We need to preserve access to these kinds of experiences.  As our world gets more crowded, as our city gets more built up, we should ensure that people have a place to encounter the magic of nature and a respite from the hustle and bustle of city life.  We should ensure that our children grow up learning about the natural world that makes human civilizations possible.  And we should provide space for the natural world and its creatures to live and to flourish.  Even in the city.  Especially in the city.

The city’s plans would almost certainly entail clearing the large trees out of the drainage canal on the east side of the Botanical Garden.  Concrete parking lots and tennis courts will require the most efficient drainage possible, which means cutting down these towering trees and creating a concrete drainage ditch.  The towering trees in the canal where the grey hawk made his meal may be some of the tallest in the city.  I am also not familiar with any other place in McAllen where there is mature riparian habitat.  Once it is gone, the grey hawk, which prefers high roosts and riparian forests, will be gone.

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McAllen, Texas, April 23, 2010 – The Board of Directors for the Valley Land Fund met on April 22, 2010 and voted unanimously to oppose the Proposition One citywide bond initiative.  Specifically, the Valley Land Fund opposes the inclusion of a provision that would allow for the redevelopment of the McAllen Botanical Garden site into a new tennis complex.

The mission of the Valley Land Fund is to preserve, expand, and enhance the native wildlife habitat in the Rio Grande Valley through education, land ownership, and creation of economic incentives.  Destruction of one of the City’s last remaining natural areas directly conflicts with the organization’s mission and purpose. 

The Board applauds the efforts of the City of McAllen to provide more recreational resources to the youth of the area, and encourages the City to continue to identify areas where baseball, soccer, tennis, and other sports can be enjoyed safely.  Valley Land Fund President, Jim Tabak, met with representatives from the McAllen Parks Advisory Board on April 22, 2010, and has offered to work with City officials to help them locate areas in the city where such activities can be enjoyed at a much lower cost to the community. 

 “The Valley Land Fund does not oppose the creation of a new tennis complex, as long as the complex is not built on the Botanical Garden site.  The current plans for development would destroy the integrity of the Botanical Garden and severely disrupt the natural ecosystem in place there,” Tabak said.  “In 1998, the Valley Land Fund partnered with the City of McAllen to help save Quinta Mazatlan.  We’re hopeful we can work with the City again to protect the Botanical Garden as well.”

 The McAllen Botanical Garden represents the largest remaining tract of native vegetation in the greater McAllen region.  The dense brush and vegetation is home to countless native bird species and other wildlife.  It is a lasting example of our rich natural and cultural heritage that should be preserved and used as an educational resource for the public. 

 The Valley Land fund is a nonprofit land trust that has served the Rio Grande Valley for over 20 years.  VLF assists with the conservation of native habitat through the protection of land in the southernmost counties of Texas.


Jim Tabak, President

The Valley Land Fund


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Prepared by Dr. Andrew McDonald, PhD   

in conjunction with the Environmental Awareness Club of UTPA  

The land-scale of the McAllen Botanical Garden is substantial.  

  • The McAllen Botanical Garden represents the largest remaining tract of native vegetation in the greater McAllen region (Mission, Edinburg, and Pharr included).
  • The large size of the Botanical Garden creates an easily accessed ‘get-away’ for needed escapes from urban activities and distractions.  Adults and children, affluent and poor, are served equally.
  • The natural character of the park’s dense and mature vegetation enhances the large-scale effect by filtering out noise pollution efficiently and creating layers of visual barriers between nature and civil life. 

    The McAllen Botanical Garden offers outdoor recreation and opportunities to learn about nature for all ages--in the heart of the city. The forest's size and its dense, mature vegetation insulate it from the hustle and bustle of city life.

  The forest in the McAllen Botanical Garden is biologically unique.    

  • Unlike most ‘Nature Centers’ and ‘Birding Centers’ in the Rio Grande Valley, including Quinta Mazatlan, this tract does not bear the aspect of a reclaimed or rehabilitated site.
  • As a tract that has been protected for more than a half-century, the Botanical Garden serves as a refugium for the convention of several mature, native plant communities.  Since plant communities determine the diversity and quantity of animals in all biotic communities, the Botanical Garden is a well-spring of life.
  • The dense shrublands and understory vegetation is exemplary of the region’s natural landscape, and serves as a model for our community to observe, ponder and understand the region’s natural heritage.
  • Apart from preserving native life forms of the Valley, urban forests serve a useful role in mitigating undesirable consequences of urban tarmacs, such as asphalt roadways, sidewalks, parking lots, and tennis courts.  They inhibit fast water runoff during flooding episodes, conserve topsoil, and lower temperatures of urban environments by absorbing heat instead of reflecting it immediately into space. 

Plant and animal diversity is great here, owing to the convergence of several distinctive plant communities on the site.     

  • A mosaic of riparian (streamside) forest, mesquite forest, and native Tamaulipan scrub forest covers the tract, each engendering a distinctive understory plant community.
  • The old age of the dominant trees provide naturally decaying trunks, in which animals of all varieties find food and room to make their homes.  This is the manner in which nature normally operates and structures itself – but a way of life that is banished from manicured gardens, golf courses, and playgrounds.
  • The Garden sequesters two distinctive plant communities that were once common in the Valley but are now rare in protected urban areas and the countryside: Coma-Mesquite associations and dense stands of Lotebush shrubs.  Both of these plant communities are favored by birds and mammals, as they provide good room and board–thorny cover and abundant sweet fruits.
  • The Garden is bordered on its east and west boundaries by two canals, one of which harbors a mature streamside (riparian) vegetation, the other a dense stand of Carrizos (cane) beside moving waters.  In addition, Westside Park on the southside of the Garden protects several ponds and wetlands.  Thus animals and plants enjoy a dependable supply of that precious ingredient to life in the Rio Grande Valley:  WATER!

    Summer tanager in the McAllen Botanical Garden. This bird stops here during migration to rest and refuel.

    Extensive stands of lotebush shrubs provide food and protection for birds and mammals.

    A woodpecker hole in an anacahuite tree. This slow-growing tree may be over 100 years old.


The location of the Botanical Garden is ideal.    

  • The Botanical Garden is close to the pulse of the city’s burgeoning commercial and convention centers in an area that is ripe for new upscale developments for which urban green space would be highly attractive. 
  • It is surrounded by appreciative middle-class and low-income communities and enhances the quality of life in these communities.
  • Close access to playlands and recreation/sports facilities in adjacent Westside Park allows for different land uses in the heart of growing city, for example rough and tumble activities vs. peaceful walks and sanctuary for the Rio Grande Valley’s native creatures (people included). 

Bottom line: The bio-scape of McAllen Botanical Park is a unique and irreplaceable natural resource of McAllen and neighboring cities.  Unlike tennis courts, this resource cannot be created just anywhere, and to do so would require at least of century of stewardship.  Hence old-growth forest is, essentially, a non-renewable resource.  

This facility is a rare and invaluable vestige of the Rio Grande Valley’s natural history and should be loved and shared by all citizens in this unique corner of the world, where 95% of our natural terrain has long since been committed to urban sprawl and agriculture.   



If preserved and well-managed, the McAllen Botanical Garden could become a gem in the heart of our community.The Botanical Garden offers opportunities for learning, research, and recreation that are found nowhere else in the Greater McAllen Metro area.



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By Stefanie Herweck, Member of the Executive Committee of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club

The Monitor, April 18, 2010

On May 8, the city of McAllen will ask residents to vote on two bond issues.  First, the city wants to borrow a total of $35 million to build 3 new sports complexes and expand an existing one. To help pay for this, it also wants to sell Westside Park.  The city has deemed these park plans ‘quality of life’ projects, and the informational videos on their webpage are filled with images of smiling children playing soccer, baseball, and tennis. 

What the videos don’t show you are images of bulldozers plowing up the largest and oldest remaining native forest within the city limits.  They don’t show you the playground equipment being pried up and shade trees being chopped down in Westside Park to make room for concrete and big box stores. 

But if the city were being completely honest, they would make it clear to McAllen residents that voting yes on the bond issues means voting for these things.

The tennis complex takes up the vast majorityof the forest, leaving a small 'yard' in the southeast with remnant big trees.

The city’s plans call for a new world class tennis complex, which has the potential to be a great asset to the community.  But instead of creating a new park, they intend to bulldoze the McAllen Botanical Garden and Nature Center, flattening the area in order to accommodate 3 dozen tennis courts, an amphitheatre and a parking lot, and leaving only a scattering of the original trees and a fraction of the green space. 

Paving over the Botanical Garden would be a tragedy.  Located on Business 83 near Ware Road, it is home to the last remnant of native Tamaulipan thorn forest in McAllen besides Quinta Mazatlan.  But the forest in the Botanical Garden is more than twice as large as Quinta Mazatlan, and its trees are more mature.  Within the Garden, high quality trails snake through 12 acres of dense, green forest.  Enormous trees line the canal that skirts the property.  And an additional 5 acres of lovely picnic grounds are shaded by arcing mesquite and live oaks. 

This amazing place was wisely preserved by the city almost fifty years ago, providing McAllen with a priceless urban forest, a quiet place where residents could take a peaceful walk, where children could learn about nature in the heart of the city, and where ecotourists could search for birds near their hotels.  But most importantly, the city preserved something that was utterly irreplaceable:  a mature forest. 

High-quality trails meander through dense stands of vegetation in the McAllen Botanical Garden. It's the only place in McAllen where it is possible to truly go for a hike in the woods.

This wisdom seems to have eluded the current city government.  For all of the hype about a new, greener McAllen, they seem not to have learned the lesson that urban natural areas and green space are an essential part of quality of life in a city.  They are operating under the old urban development paradigm of building up every acre.  And in the process, they are depriving generations of future McAllen residents a part of their natural heritage.                

The 17 acres of the Botanical Garden are adjacent to Westside Park, which, under the terms of the bond issue, the city intends to sell to private developers for retail and residential projects.   At 37 acres, Westside is the second-largest park in McAllen, with a softball complex, playgrounds and mature trees.  It also boasts ponds that attract waterfowl.  City officials are convinced that the park’s proximity to the Convention Center will bring a terrific price.  However, the city put the park on the market twice in 2008 and did not receive any bids, and three adjacent lots with better access to Ware road currently sport for sale signs, but remain unsold.

The wetland area of Westside Park where waterfowl often congregate. Wetlands are critical natural filters for our water.

Taken together, Westside Park and the Botanical Garden comprise the largest existing green space in McAllen by far.  Just as the property surrounding New York’s Central Park and Austin’s Green Belt is the most desirable in those cities, if this land were left as green space, well-maintained and well-managed, it could become an economic driver for the city. It could become McAllen’s own green belt.  Such a transformation could increase surrounding property values, and present a positive image of McAllen to visitors at the nearby Convention Center.

And there is no need to sacrifice the Botanical Garden or Westside Park.  The city owns properties besides the Botanical Garden that are large enough for their tennis center plans, and that would not require the leveling of a forest.  If the city wants the tennis center to be near the convention center, there are three lots with for sale signs that are adjacent to Westside Park.  The tennis center would then complement the park and the garden, rather than causing their destruction.

When it comes to parks, everyone agrees that McAllen is underserved.  A Sunday visit to overcrowded Schupp Park will make that clear.  But in this bond election we are being asked to sacrifice, needlessly, the greenest acres of our city.  McAllen citizens should vote no on both bond proposals and send the City Commission back to the drawing board.

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