The nature preserve on the US-Mexico border became a target of rightwing ire after it opposed construction of Trump’s wall
In Mission, Texas, on the border between the US and Mexico, sits the National Butterfly Center. A 100-acre nature preserve once exclusively dedicated to the conservation of plants and wildlife, it has now been thrust into the national spotlight and become a focal point of divisions over the country’s immigration policy.
This week, the butterfly center was forced to close its doors indefinitely amid ongoing threats from far-right conspiracists and QAnon followers who falsely claim it is a haven for human-trafficking and illegal migration.
“They’re not conspiracies, they’re just outright lies,” Marianna Treviño-Wright, the executive director of the National Butterfly Center, told the Guardian. “I think that’s a very important point that needs to be made. As long as they’re called ‘conspiracies’, then it seems like there’s some plausibility.”
The North American Butterfly Association (NABA), which runs the center, decided to close it down indefinitely on Wednesday as a precautionary measure, after being warned to “be armed at all times or out of town” during a We Stand America rally in support of a border wall.
The butterfly center first attracted the attention of the far right in 2017. Treviño-Wright and the NABA made headlines for suing the organizations behind the construction of a section of Donald Trump’s border wall after they sought to build straight through the butterfly preserve. Those groups included We Build the Wall, led by Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon and founder Brian Kolfage, which is now facing corruption and fraud charges.
Conspiracy theories about the butterfly center snowballed after Kolfage posted a series of tweets, claiming it was run by “left wing thugs with a sham butterfly agenda” and asserting without evidence that “rampant sex trade” was taking place on the property. Treviño-Wright said an increase in online and in-person harassment soon followed.
A court date for the case about the section of border wall on the center’s property has not been set yet.
Treviño-Wright said since the lawsuit she has faced personal threats and on one occasion, assault, by the extremist Virginia Republican congressional candidate Kimberly Lowe who visited the butterfly center last month and demanded to see “‘illegals crossing on rafts”. In an audio recording of the visit, Lowe is heard claiming baselessly that Treviño-Wright was “OK with children being sex-trafficked, raped and murdered”.
“It’s utterly ridiculous that instead of Democrats and a pizza joint, it’s immigrants and a butterfly center,” Treviño-Wright said, comparing the situation to the debunked Pizzagate conspiracy that took off in 2016 in an attempt to paint the then presidential candidate Hilary Clinton as a proponent of human trafficking.
The butterfly center’s closure this week did not come as a surprise to Treviño-Wright.
“This has been escalating. Not just the attacks on us, but the agenda in the political landscape. I think it makes sense for the [NABA] board to pump the brakes. If this madness is going to continue until the midterms or, God forbid, beyond that, we need to have personnel and a plan in place to protect ourselves as best as possible to be prepared for this horrible situation.”
Treviño-Wright said the construction of sections of the border wall, and the subsequent vitriol that came from QAnon followers and Trump supporters, had a profound effect on the butterfly center and its staff.
“When you’re targeted by laws that are designed to be destructive, it’s very difficult to continue operations as normal. So it’s been disruptive. It’s been destructive. And it’s made it very difficult for us to focus on our mission, which is environmental conservation and education.”
Choking back tears, Treviño-Wright explained the events of recent years had put a strain on her mental health and personal relationships.
“It really has made me a misanthrope. I used to believe much better of people, but now I’m afraid to even go to the grocery store because I can’t trust that the person with the cart next to me doesn’t believe” the lies, Treviño-Wright said.
On her accidental venture into political activism, Treviño-Wright called herself: “Utterly reluctant, unwilling, and anxious-to-not-be-here-or-be-doing-this-any-more.”
The butterfly center is now sharing strategies for dealing with confrontational conspiracists with the Children’s Museum of Denver, which was forcibly shut down after anti-maskers frequently directed their anger towards staff.
Treviño-Wright said she didn’t know if her center would reopen, but “certainly hope[s] it does.
“It’s a magical place and it’s a place I’ve poured the last 10 years of my life into developing and defending. I hope there’s a wonderful future in store for the National Butterfly Center, but as long as these people get away with these things, I’m not sure of anything. Not just for anything but for our entire country.
“It’s just unbelievable that somehow things have reached this point in American history that a nature center stands at the crossroads of whether our country slides full-on into authoritarianism or our democratic republic survives.”