Marianna Treviño-Wright fighting to protect National Butterfly Center - Brownsville Herald: Local News

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Marianna Treviño-Wright fighting to protect National Butterfly Center

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Posted: Monday, November 26, 2018 9:45 am

MISSION — The bushes at the National Butterfly Center turn light brown after a cold front. As they recover to their natural hue, butterflies swarm around the few native plants they can eat and lay their eggs on while visitors observe them through long camera lenses. Business is as usual.

The 100-acre revegetation project is meant to “grow connections between people, plants and pollinators and help them understand the intimate relationship between them,” said Marianna Treviño-Wright, executive director of the National Butterfly Center.

In 2004, the North American Butterfly Foundation chose to build the center in Mission, on what used to be an onion field, because of the unique biological diversity in the area, she said. But in the six-and-a-half years Treviño-Wright has been there, one of the biggest challenges she faces is making it known locally that the center exists.

Treviño-Wright grew up in south McAllen, on about 11 acres off Jackson Road. This, and on her family’s ranch in San Manuel, is where she grew an appreciation for nature. She was particularly interested in reptiles, such as horned lizards and snakes.

Even then, running a nature center was never on her to-do list. Her background is in business development and consultation. Before coming to the center, she owned a business in the Houston area, then worked in marketing for Mission Regional Medical Center.

But according to her, what she does now isn’t too different.

“Business development is the same whether you’re talking about butterflies or nuts and bolts,” Treviño-Wright said. “You just have to find a message and make it resonate with an audience. But I certainly never imagined I’d be running a nature center.”

As executive director, she’s in charge of staffing, funding, grant writing, donor development, government relations, education programs, marketing and communication. But for the last year-and-a-half, she said, most of her job has been related to the border wall.

And she’s not very happy about it, to say the least.

The wall is set to begin construction in February. It will sit atop the levee, cutting off part of the center’s property between the 1.2 miles that will separate the Rio Grande and the wall. In theory, the wall will better serve Border Patrol in finding people crossing to the United States illegally. But Treviño-Wright senses that there are ulterior motives.

“If this were about defending the United States, we would have more gun boats on the river, not-for-profit construction projects that seize private property that create a landing and staging area up to 2 miles inland,” she said. “...I think it’s important for people to understand that they’ve been sold a bill of goods.”

Treviño-Wright is not sure if the native plants behind the wall will remain. Ninety-five percent of native plants in the region have been removed due to development. Of the 5 percent that is left, she said 4 percent will be behind the border wall after it is built.

But official communication between her and U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been spotty and inconsistent, she said. In their last quarterly meeting this month, she was escorted out of the Border Patrol McAllen field office by police. According to her, they targeted her for being a vocal opponent of the wall. Though she still isn’t sure if those plants will be left alone, Treviño-Wright said one agent roaming the property personally told her, “Why would we leave even one bush for people to hide under?”

Such encounters haven’t been uncommon for her, she said. They come from law enforcement and regular citizens alike.

“A lot of people don’t give a crap about the environment,” she said. “If only I had a dollar for everytime somebody told me ‘B——, butterflies can fly over a wall.’ They completely miss the point.”

In the grand scheme of things, Treviño-Wright said, Hidalgo County alone stands to lose millions of dollars in ecotourism if nature parks like the National Butterfly Center and adjacent Bentsen State Park are walled off.

On a chilly Thursday, right after a strong two-day cold front, the parking lot of the National Butterfly Center was full of vehicles, with few of them sporting Texas license plates.

The gardens were full of people like Craig Lipski, a retiree from Michigan who spends four months in the Valley every winter. Many like him have considered buying retirement homes in the area, but now Lipski isn’t even sure if he wants to be back next year.

“I wish everybody realized that,” he said. “Now, we’re not positive if we’ll be back. It’s a shame.”

emoreno@themonitor.com

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