The Right-Wing Conspiracy Theorists and the Butterflies

Marianna Wright, executive director of the QAnon-attacked National Butterfly Center, gets candid with Sierra

By Carson Vaughan

February 5, 2022


When I first met Marianna Wright, executive director of the National Butterfly Center—a private nature conservatory near Mission, Texas, that’s made national news since having to close indefinitely after Wright was physically attacked by right-wing conspiracists last week—she was leaping to shore from a pontoon on the Rio Grande. I was reporting a story for this magazine about America’s 100th meridian, how that informal climate divide is marching east because of climate change and subtly reshaping life along the way. Wright offered me a beer and, though I had only come to discuss the butterflies her center labors to protect, immediately launched into a jeremiad on the center’s neighboring border wall as we puttered upstream alongside it—or rather, alongside them.

“That red one is the government border wall, and this is the Bannon-Fisher scam,” she said. The towering slats of the private wall glared white in the sun and cut off abruptly near an elevated patrol tower skirted with invasive carrizo cane. “That patrol tower hasn't been operational for six months, maybe longer. That's how bad the ‘crisis’ is.”

 The more she spoke, the more I realized our sunset cruise wasn’t just for pleasure, and it wasn’t just to show a strange journalist the Rio Grande. It was, in fact, a tiny act of protest. The Border Patrol, Wright said, has been discouraging public use of the river for years, and she and her colleagues and friends at the National Butterfly Center are insistent on taking it back. They often use the hashtag #reclaimtheriver: “And that’s what we wish everyone would do, you know? Everybody should be out here enjoying it, just like Mexico does.”

Previously the executive director of the Foundation at Mission Regional Medical Center, Wright was recruited to fortify the fledgling National Butterfly Center in 2012. She doesn’t hold back. She’s frank. She’s funny. She’s unapologetic. And alongside her operation’s sponsor, the North American Butterfly Association, she’s currently a plaintiff in two separate lawsuits aiming to halt construction of the border walls, both direct threats to their 100-acre wildlife sanctuary and botanical garden. 

When the National Butterfly Center was forced to close temporarily last week, following a bizarre encounter with Virginia congressional candidate Kimberly Lowe, I reached out to Wright again via Zoom. Here’s what Wright had to say about the border wall, her butterflies, and the right-wing conspiracists who are out to get her.


[Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.]

Sierra: On its face, the phrase “National Butterfly Center” seems wholly innocuous. How did the NBC become so embroiled in America’s border wall debate?

Marianna Wright: On July 20, 2017, I found five government contractors cutting down our trees and mowing down our brush. I got on the phone with my US Border Patrol community liaison. He had no idea what was going on either. The next morning, five Border Patrol agents showed up demanding to speak with me. We met inside the visitor pavilion, and they told me that what we were asserting on the news and on YouTube—because we had put out video of this—had not happened. I said, “Come on, boys, get your trucks. Follow me over the levee.” The contractors had left the brush hog and the brush boom there, so it was all evident. They laughed and said, “Somebody will be in touch.” 

Chief Manuel Padilla, who was the head of the US Border Patrol Rio Grande Valley Sector, later showed up unannounced in plain clothes with his attaché and a uniformed agent. He told me the government had indeed sent the contractors and they would be back, and they would be back with “green uniform presence.” I said, “Armed federal agents on private property to protect private for-profit corporate employees?” And he said, “Yes, because people like you tend to get pretty upset when we take their land.” And that has indeed been the case. Every time the contractors have come, or even Border Patrol agents themselves, they have come with a great deal of “green uniform presence.” Surrounding us, attempting to intimidate us, agents on horseback, in their SUVs and trucks, on foot, on the ATVs, the helicopter overhead, all of it.

Shortly after that incident, the National Butterfly Center filed suit against the Department of Homeland Security. 

Correct. We filed in early December 2017, and that lawsuit sat with Judge Richard Leon in the DC district for 14 months without a single day in court. Never a hearing. Nothing. 

There were several aspects to our complaint. There had been no waiver of law, so the government was actually violating the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, all sorts of their own laws in this construction project. And at that time, it was a project that had no congressional vote authorizing or even appropriating funds for it. So that was part of our lawsuit: “You haven't waived the laws. You haven't exercised eminent domain. And yet here you are, and by virtue of your physical presence and actions here, you have effectively seized our land already.”

The second part of the lawsuit were those Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights violations. The US Border Patrol has authority for warrantless entry for the purpose of “patrolling,” but the word “patrolling” has never really been defined. And so Border Patrol has, over the 10 years I've been at the butterfly center, denied us access to enter our own property, denied our members and visitors entry, occupied the property physically with personnel and equipment. They drag tires, which obviously are harmful to wildlife and air quality and create erosion. They have installed motion sensors throughout the property, video cameras, “dirt box” audio technology, and lord knows what else. And we would argue that many of these things do not equal “patrolling,” including bringing unauthorized third-party contractors onto our land, which they were doing routinely. 

The National Butterfly Center has since become a target for many right-wing extremists. Do you believe it was that litigation that put you and the butterfly center in their crosshairs?

After we filed suit, there was some publicity, but it wasn't such that it provoked a violent backlash. It was mostly what we call “disaster tourism.” People in their red hats would show up at the butterfly center saying, “Hey! We want you to show us where they're going to build our president's great big beautiful wall!” And we would say, “Walk a half mile that way to the levee and the Mission Main Canal, and then go ahead and walk another 1.2 miles to the Rio Grande River.” So it really wasn't that bad. 

What happened, though, is in May of 2019, [former White House senior adviser] Jared Kushner reportedly told an Oval Office full of GOP senators, “We solved the butterfly thing,” and we had no idea what that meant. But we quickly found out when Steve Bannon’s military-grade misinformation campaign—designed to promote a political agenda and influence campaigns and incite violence—started in El Paso and Sunland Park and then came to Mission, Texas. When they were in El Paso, we discussed the fact that the next stop would likely be Mission and that they would try to buy the land right next door to us. 

Both you, as an individual, and the NBC filed an additional lawsuit in 2019 against We Build the Wall, chaired by Steve Bannon, which has since raised over $20 million under the pretense of building a private border wall. What exactly were your complaints?  

Our lawsuit against We Build the Wall had two aspects. One was defamation and business disparagement. The other was a land nuisance claim. The We Build the Wall structure is downstream from us. It is built on a sandbar that is a peninsula that juts out. It points toward Mexico. And if everybody could see me right now, they'd see that I'm giving you the middle finger, because that's what this peninsula looks like. And we are upstream at basically a 90-degree angle. So in the next flood, when the Rio Grande river is rushing downstream, this Fisher-Neuhaus-Bannon fence is going to become a dam. It is going to become completely clogged and blocked with organic and inorganic debris that floats downstream in the flood. That dam is going to redirect water. It's going to increase shear. It's going to cause sediment redistribution. It's going to result in accelerated erosion and real land loss for us upstream and inland. 

Marianna Wright

How did We Build the Wall and its followers respond to your litigation? 

In order to boost their fundraising, they needed a straw man, and they chose to make the National Butterfly Center and the North American Butterfly Association and me personally their pinata. They totally disparaged our organization and disrupted our operations. They declared that we were a cartel front, that we were involved in human trafficking, that I was selling women and children into sex slavery, that they saw dead bodies on the property swarmed by butterflies, that they had put snipers in the bushes around our property to protect their construction workers from us. There were hundreds of these kinds of lies, and not just on Twitter or YouTube, but on Steve Bannon’s “War Room” broadcast and on their other media partners, including the fake news websites that they threw up, like, which doesn't exist anymore because it fulfilled its purpose in maligning us and garnering millions of dollars for We Build the Wall, which is a dark money fundraising operation. 

And what did you make of these wild allegations?

We wanted to laugh it off, but the Walmart massacre had already occurred. Twenty-two people shot in cold blood at Walmart in El Paso, dozens more shot and injured as a direct result of We Build the Wall’s activities there. That event and those activities, the inflammatory rhetoric, and the exact same operatives and content creators that we saw this week in McAllen and Mission making their fake videos outside of the National Butterfly Center—they provoked stochastic terrorism and wound up getting more than 22 people shot and killed. So we couldn't laugh about this.

The NBC made news again last week after Kimberly Lowe, a Republican congressional candidate in Virginia, allegedly assaulted you and your son. How did this whole bizarre incident play out?

My son Nicholas was filling in at the front desk because COVID has run through the National Butterfly Center just like everywhere else. He interrupted me on a conference call to say there were two women who had come in and said they were not going to pay admission, but they wanted us to open the property for them to go back to the river and see “all the illegals crossing on the rafts.” One woman claimed to be running for Congress, and the other woman claimed to be her Secret Service agent. I asked him to get the name of the woman who said she was running for Congress, and I took a minute or two to look her up online. It was clear to me that she was a MAGA candidate. There are photos of her with Trump and the My Pillow guy and Matt Gaetz and a whole rogues’ gallery.

I informed them that this was private property and they were not welcome; that I understood who they were and what they were here to do, and we were having none of it. At that point they started with, “So that means you're OK with the illegals and the babies being raped?” and all of that. I said, “If you're not going to leave, we'll call the police,” and I signaled to Nicholas who picked up the phone and dialed 911. I followed them out and said, “Keep it moving,” at which point Michelle, the companion to Kimberly, said, “I work for the Secret Service and nothing is off-limits to me,” and I laughed and said, “That is hilarious.” 

“I informed them that this was private property and they were not welcome; that I understood who they were and what they were here to do, and we were having none of it. At that point they started with, ‘So that means you're OK with the illegals and the babies being raped?’ and all of that.”

I turned then and saw that Kimberly appeared to be photographing or filming me at the front of the building. I immediately put my hand up to block her—and then I was on the ground. She tackled me. The next thing I knew, Nicholas was between me and Michelle, and Kimberly was in her car filming herself, yelling, “Michelle, get in the car!” Nicholas ran to close the front gate of the butterfly center. Michelle gets in the car, and then Kimberly guns it, screaming, “Get the fuck out of my way!” and swerves to hit my son with her car. 

We called 911. The visitor called 911. I called the regular dispatch number. Still no one came. Finally, I called the deputy city manager and told her what had happened, and that we were waiting for police, and she said, “Let me alert Chief Dominguez of the Mission Police Department,” and then eventually the police did come. It took about an hour, and we now know why. Apparently, everyone on duty was at a pinning ceremony and celebration that Friday afternoon. So instead of answering 911, I guess there was a sheet cake to consume. It's criminal.

border crossing

Do you believe the board of the North American Butterfly Association has shown appropriate concern for the rhetoric and now physical threats deployed by these far-right extremist groups?

In the beginning, I think there was some skepticism as to how sinister We Build the Wall is. There were folks who were unaware of Cambridge Analytica and what Steve Bannon has made a career doing. And there were people who did not believe that Steve Bannon was a part of this. When we filed suit against We Build the Wall and Fisher Industries and Neuhaus & Sons, we also named [We Build the Wall founder] Brian Kolfage individually, but we did not name Steve Bannon, which I had pressed for. We already had enough evidence, but there were people above me who thought that filing suit against Steve Bannon would be reaching too high. And now they know they were absolutely wrong.

If they didn’t believe how serious it was in 2019 and 2020, when we were receiving death threats, and the militia had come to the property, and we had police officers in the state of Texas calling and threatening us, maybe now they know. They’re actually meeting today to decide whether we should close the butterfly center temporarily or indefinitely. And I guess I should say whether we close again, because we did close Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of this past week because of credible threats that were shared with us by a former state representative related to the “We Stand America,” MAGA midterm kickoff rally.

How were those threats communicated to the National Butterfly Center?

While we were waiting for the police, we spent more time on Kimberly Lowe's Facebook page. She was doing her own borderlands tour, hitting all the hot spots that have been popular backdrops for the lies that Bannon and Trump's ICE, DHS, and CBP officials continue to use, like Catholic Charities and the National Butterfly Center. And there was a photo of her with a former state representative that I know. 

So I called that state representative and said, “Do you know this woman? She just came here.” He said, “I know this is what they intend to do in the election season, and this is how they intend to own their opponents.” They say, “I went to the border. I saw the dead bodies. I witnessed the cartel trafficking. I touched the Rio Grande river. Have you?” And then he told me that I should be armed at all times, or better yet, out of town, and consider closing the center during the rally. 

Given all this additional political baggage, how has your job the last five years impacted your family and your personal life?

It's been horrific. In February 2020, before the world shut down for COVID, my son was walking to his car at his high school campus and someone pulled a gun in his face and told him, “I should blow your head off right now for who your mother is and what she does.” So none of this has been limited to just the butterfly center or me. There is a real sickness in our country right now, a mass psychosis. People believed Pizzagate. They believe the We Build the Wall stuff that left people dead at Walmart, just doing their grocery shopping. And now they're trying to do that to us at the National Butterfly Center. We have targets on our backs. 

I know that all of this has shortened my life. The stress mentally and physically is something I feel all the time. Brian Kolfage and Steve Bannon managed to get ahold of my tax returns. We can't even get President Trump's tax returns, but somehow they got ahold of my tax returns. So for the last three years, I haven't sought any medical attention other than to go get tested for COVID—not for my mental health, or my physical health—because I have no reason not to think that they would get ahold of those records, too, or anything I might be prescribed. It's been awful, and my son is receiving help and medication.

How has this ongoing controversy affected the National Butterfly Center itself?

I wish that I could speak to that in concrete terms, but you can't prove a negative. If there are people who maybe would have supported us before but won't now, we'll never know. And then there are people, on Twitter for example, who have learned about us because of this insanity; not necessarily because we broadcast it, but because maybe they follow Rolling Stone or BuzzFeed or something like that. As far as our organization and our ability to operate, I think that is very much at risk right now. I think the very future of the National Butterfly Center is on the table.

One way that we are sustainable at this point is that, prior to COVID, we served over 6,000 school children a year with traditional field education. Of course, that was disrupted during COVID, but we hoped it was something that would return and we could continue to build on to keep our nonprofit operating and help us make payroll. But if school districts, if teachers, if parents in our communities believe this stuff—and it looks like as much as 50 percent of the population may believe this garbage—then what does the future look like for us?

What keeps you fighting for the National Butterfly Center?

I have a fantastic staff. And I have the most wonderful husband. And I do think about quitting all the time. So who knows? Everybody has their breaking point, and I'm not sure that mine is that far off.