CERRO PRIETO, Mexico – President Felipe Calderon unveiled a sweeping plan Sunday to curb logging and protect millions of monarch butterflies that migrate to the mountains of central Mexico each winter, covering trees and bushes and attracting visitors from around the world.
The plan will put $4.6 million toward additional equipment and advertising for the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, covering a 124,000-acre swath of trees and mountains that for thousands of years has served as the winter nesting ground to millions of orange- and black-winged monarch butterflies.
Calderon said it would help boost tourism and support the economy in an impoverished area where illegal logging runs rampant. “It is possible to take care of the environment and at the same time promote development,” he said.
The new initiative is part of ongoing efforts to protect the butterflies, which are a huge tourist attraction.
The plan also meshes nicely with one of Calderon’s main policy planks: protecting the environment and combatting global warming. He has drawn up a national anti-global-warming plan and committed to plant 250 million trees in 2007.
While the monarch butterfly does not appear on any endangered species lists, experts say illegal logging in Mexico threatens its existence in North America because it removes the foliage that protects the delicate insects from the cold and rain.
“By even taking a single tree out near the butterfly colony, you allow heat to escape from the forest and that then jeopardizes the butterflies,” said Lincoln Brower, professor emeritus of zoology at the University of Florida and at Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Va.
Brower, who has studied the insects for 52 years, described the Mexican nesting grounds as “the Mecca of the whole insect world.”
The reserve already receives about $36.4 million in government funding, and its staff includes a team of park rangers who patrol the area with assault rifles and body armor searching for armed gangs of lumber thieves.
The World Wildlife Fund and the Mexican Fund for Nature Conservation say the efforts are paying off. They say this year saw a 48 percent drop in illegal logging, compared with a year ago.
Each September, the butterflies begin their 3,400-mile journey from the forests of eastern Canada and parts of the United States to the central Mexican mountains. The voyage is considered an aesthetic and scientific wonder.
The butterflies return to the U.S. and Canada in late March, where they breed and cycle through up to five generations before heading back south. Scientists say they are genetically programmed to return to Mexico, where they settle into the same mountains their ancestors inhabited the year before.
According to Brower, sometimes they even return to the same trees – probably because previous monarchs have marked the area through a mechanism scientists don’t yet understand.