A mission for monarchs: masses of autumn-colored monarchs cluster together as they overwinter in Mexico. Depletion of the forest there has many concerned for the butterfly's future.
Alvarez, 51, was not always a tree planter. He grew up in Juarez and spent several years abroad before returning to Mexico to settle permanently with his family. "I traveled throughout Mexico, looking for a place where I could buy a ranch," he says. "It had to have certain requirements ... and it had to be within my means." He eventually picked La Cruz in Michoacan, a colonial ranch close to Santa Clara de Cobre. The surrounding forests played a large part in influencing his decision. Only four years after he settled in La Cruz, Alvarez was helping local people replant trees.
Now he raises trees both for commercial plantings and for reforestation. He plants many trees on land owned by indigenous community groups called ejidos, made up of 200 to 300 individuals or ejidatarios. Through his efforts, the ejidatarios learn to make better use of their land, and the wildlife thrives.
Perhaps no species of wildlife benefits more than the monarch butterfly, a species beloved throughout North America. Tree plantings preserve the monarchs' winter quarters and allow the autumn-colored insects to maintain their yearly migration from the eastern United States and Canada to the pine and oyamel fir forests of central Mexico.
To witness the great monarch migration is to witness one of nature's most spectacular sights. The butterflies arrive in Mexico at the beginning of November, around the time of the present day holiday of Los Dias de Muertos, or Day of the Dead. This is fitting, considering the Aztecs used to believe monarchs represented the spirits of slain warriors.
No one knows for sure what triggers the butterflies to fly south at this exact time every year, stopping at the same exact spots as did previous generations, but Alvarez offers a couple of theories.
"Some scientists believe that the monarchs sense the inclination of the earth by the changing autumn light," he says. "Others say that the monarchs have certain chemicals in their body that attract them to Mexico."
Their flight covers almost 3,000 miles, and by the time they reach the homestretch, approximately a million butterflies fly side by side. Not a single individual in this butterfly caravan has ever been to Mexico, yet they never get lost and succeeding generations always come back.
Once the monarchs nestle safely in the pine and fir forests of central Mexico, they take up residence for six months. During this time they mate and build crucial fat reserves for their home journey, not a bad life by any standard. Oyamel firs aid in the fattening process by providing monarchs with a cool environment and protecting them from the slightly wet atmosphere.
Butterflies cluster in thick, seething groups around the branches and trunks of these fir trees, and will even land on naturalists and photographers who pause for longer than a few seconds. At the end of six months, the monarchs resume their flight, this time spreading their wings to ride the northern breezes to Texas, where several lay their first eggs.
Shortly after laying an average of 100 to 300 eggs, one group of returnees passes away, leaving the surviving larvae to fend for themselves. Endowed with an insatiable appetite for milkweed, and almost always in close proximity to the plant, these larvae eventually turn into butterflies and continue flying north. Three generations of butterflies come and go before the monarchs ride the wind currents back to Mexico.
Deforestation could cancel the monarchs' plans. Even the loss of a few trees from the canopy hurts overwintering butterflies. Alvarez first learned about the monarchs' plight while trying to reforest the scarred paths of loggers. In January 2002, the danger to the butterflies became impossible to ignore when 80 percent of some colonies in Michoacan died in a severe snowstorm. Holes in the canopy had left the roosting insects prey to the frosty nights.
Alvarez, who modestly says his expertise is trees not butterflies, demonstrates the difference in tree cover with his hand. Holding his fingers upward and closed, he explains, "The butterflies need a closed canopy, like this."
Now he spreads his fingers in five directions. "This is an open canopy: If it rains, the water freezes the butterflies and they fall like cardboard." Open canopies present another big disadvantage: they let in more light, which triggers monarchs to fly when they should be resting. By flying at unnecessary times, monarchs deplete their fat reserves and are unable to make the return journey to the United States. If fewer butterflies make it to the U.S., fewer will return to Mexico.
The threat of losing the monarch migration provides Alvarez with an additional incentive to plant trees. "This year we will plant 400,000 trees," he says, tossing off the number in a matter-of-fact voice. "We have experienced great success with the number of trees planted. Our first year we planted only 7,000."
That was eight years ago when his nonprofit group La Cruz Habitat Preservation Project was just getting off the ground. Before that, he was growing trees for the Mexican government, successfully nurturing 3 million trees a year, which tells you something about the potential of the La Cruz nursery.
Alvarez used what he had learned to form the nonprofit group to work for reforestation. Pursuing a bottom-up approach, he first considered the needs of local ejidos, and then trained them to sustain the forest. Alvarez' knack for bringing people together propelled his early success. In 1997, he partnered with Bob Small, a conservationist who previously worked with the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy in California, to create the Michoacan Reforestation Fund (MRF). MRF works directly with La Cruz Habitat Preservation Project on a number of environmental and community goals, including aid for people and monarchs.
Hoping to gain more support, Alvarez recently traveled to New York, stopping by AMERICAN FORESTS' headquarters in Washington, DC. "The United States is nice. I have been to Europe too, and it was nice. But I want to be back home," he admits.
It's easy to see why. Except for breaks in the canopy, courtesy of loggers, an aerial view of Alvarez' native Michoacan reminds you of clusters of broccoli heads, vibrant and glossy in the crisp mountain air. Pine trees and oyamel firs predominate if undisturbed, enmeshing their scraggly tops in one solid molding of green.
The green canopy follows much of this trans-volcanic mountain range, which starts just shy of Mexico City and extends all the way to the Pacific Ocean, about 155 miles west of La Cruz. The forest's initial beauty almost conceals the more sinister activity that goes on beneath the canopy.
Illegal logging has already created bald patches in parts of the forest. Alvarez says that in the past 50 years, Mexico has lost 53 percent of its forested lands; each year, 4,000 wildlife species disappear. Rounded off, that's 10 species a day. In addition to the pine and oyamel forests of the higher elevations, Mexico houses some of the most ecologically valuable rainforest in the world. These lands--and the countless species that inhabit them--are in danger of elimination as well.
About 70 percent of all wood sold in the country is gathered illegally, Alvarez says. Even in the forest around his home of Hacienda La Cruz, he estimates that loggers cut an average of 2,000 trees a day. A majority of the stolen timber goes to particle board factories where it is promptly ground up; the mere mention of particle board makes Alvarez frown.
Illegal logging is one of the biggest challenges for the La Cruz Habitat Preservation Project. Though logging is a well-rooted activity, Alvarez believes it can be countered with a permanent, well-equipped police force. "They need to have good communication on the patrols, and various checkpoints. The patrols need better salaries and there needs to be more of them."
Vivero Hacienda La Cruz nursery has not run into any trouble with loggers, and Alvarez himself tries to stay away from the fiercer altercations. Yet he always feels sad when he steps into a barren pocket of forest where once-tall pines are reduced to shavings and stumps. He balances these scenes of destruction with the important successes that La Cruz Habitat Preservation Project has gained in the last eight years.
"I'm happy when I see dust and rock hillsides turned into pine oasis," Alvarez says. "I'm happy when I see how proud farmers are of their land. In some cases springs have returned where there haven't been springs for many years. You understand, these are people who thought their land was worth nothing. They end up selling for $100,000 to $180,000 a hectare (2.471 acres)."
The regenerative process inspires many poor ejidatarios to change from growing corn and oats to growing trees. Ejidatarios and other poor land owners of the Michoacan area have long suffered from unemployment and poverty. Similarly deplorable living conditions across Mexico force many of the poorest people to chop down precious trees for money. But Alvarez wants his neighbors to make the best use of their forest. He wants to show them that protecting the forest and growing sustainable trees are not irreconcilable goals. The nutrient-filled soil of Michoacan helps trees mature in only 17 to 20 years, he says proudly.
Meanwhile, mushrooms and animal life develop under the shade of young pines and oyamels, providing other bounties. Alvarez's commercial plantings take communities' economic needs in mind by providing long-and short-term dividends. Trees planted in a hectare (2.471 acres) designated for commercial planting are harvested in five-year cycles, with the last trees allowed to reach a 15-year maturity.
During each of the five-year cycles, workers thin and replant the trees, using mostly white pine seedlings. Christmas trees, subsistence wood, and eventually lumber are the fruits of their labors. At the end of the 15 years, the hectare yields $80,000 to $120,000 in total profit for about 800 mature trees.
Naturalist Lincoln Brower praises Alvarez's work with the local communities. In a video for the Michoacan Reforestation Fund, he says that the initial teamwork between La Cruz and the ejido communities set an example and interested local people in exchanging their farmland for sustainable forest. Calling Alvarez "a nurseryman, a planter, and a great organizer of people," Brower says that "by the end of 2003, we will have planted a million trees."
"A million and a half," Alvarez corrects. "But that's okay." Brower also says that the survival rate for trees from Alvarez' nursery is high because of the care the nurseryman and his workers demonstrate throughout the entire process. Alvarez himself keeps close watch over all aspects of the tree planting.
"I grow the trees, I transplant the trees, I handpick the people who are going to plant the trees with me and I train them," he says.
Over the years, he has built his nursery into an efficiently run system. The only setback is lack of funds. For several years, he has enjoyed the support of a private foundation in the U.S. and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Foundation. This year Fish & Wildlife had to pull out because of budget cuts resulting from the war in Iraq. In its place, Alvarez recruited Bimbo, a Mexican bread company, to help sponsor some plantings. A recent donation of the latest in GIS software from distributor ESRI will allow him to track canopy loss. But he needs more support for his tree planting.
"I have to start growing trees on a certain date regardless of funds. I know I will have the trees, but I don't know about the money," he says. The 400,000 trees for this year have been covered, but next year is an open question.
Alvarez admits that his position is stressful when he doesn't know if he has the backing. The summer planting season in Mexico began the second week of June and lasted until the first week of August. Alvarez planned to finish his plantings a little earlier this year. That way, his seedlings will have four months to grow thick and strong before the next wave of monarchs flies south for the winter.
Those wishing to help restore habitat for Mexico's threatened monarchs can contribute through AMERICAN FORESTS (www.americanforests.org). The contributions you give will be forwarded to Jose Luis Alvarez at La Cruz Habitat Preservation Project in Mexico, where he and his workers will plant a tree for every dollar donated.
To learn more about La Cruz Habitat Preservation Project and Michoacan Reforestation Fund, visit: www.michoacanmonarchs.org.
RELATED ARTICLE: PLANTING HOMES FOR FLYING JEWELS
Butterflies are among the world's most beloved insects, but the colorful show they put on for us may be jeopardized by destruction of their natural habitat. Butterflies need trees and plants for protection and food. Logging and natural disasters such as fire and tornadoes can disrupt the ecosystems butterflies call home. AMERICAN FORESTS' Global ReLeaf projects rebuild damaged ecosystems and reestablish havens for wildlife. You can help restore native habitat for these favorite insects. AMERICAN FORESTS has planted or is planting trees for butterflies in these Global ReLeaf sites:
TEXAS: LOWER RIO GRANDE VALLEY NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
Since 1997 AMERICAN FORESTS has planted 326,000 trees in this ongoing project, enough to restore native vegetation on 1,185 acres. The refuge provides shelter and habitat for more than 300 butterfly species, including the zebra longwing, pipevine swallowtail, julia, and Mexican blue wing. AMERICAN FORESTS will continue restoration efforts there in 2004 with the planting of 30,000 native trees.
GEORGIA: OKEFENOKEE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
Twenty acres of longleaf pines have been planted in numerous small natural openings and larger areas created by fire and logging throughout the 33,000 acres of upland forest. The wildflowers that proliferate beneath the pines, thanks to the tree's dependence on fire to sustain its habitat, attract the monarch and the equally dazzling red-spotted purple, which attains a color close to fluorescent violet and gets its name from red spots underneath its wings.
WISCONSIN: BARRON COUNTY
More than 97,000 trees were planted on two farmland sites in Barron County, where meandering streams had suffered heavy soil erosion. The Barron County Alternative High School is now performing follow-up hand planting and care of the sites. Together, these plantings should ease the stress on the endangered Karner blue butterfly. Wild lupines, which grow well there, provide both a food source and a safe depository for Karner blue's eggs. AMERICAN FORESTS' Global ReLeaf partners expect the plantings in Barron County will generate forest regrowth even in unplanted sites, reopening the zone for Karner blues.
IOWA: THREE MILE LAKE
Three Mile Lake, a manmade reservoir in Union County, Iowa, underwent a serious facelift in 1994. Global ReLeaf supported the creation of 27 acres of riparian forest to counter erosion caused by overgrazing and poor farming practices. Since the project was completed in 1995 and native shrubs and grasses have been added, the reservoir has become a treasured spot for waterfowl, bass--and butterflies. One, the regal fritillary, is a welcome site because it's considered a "species of concern" due to its scarcity and vanishing population.
MINNESOTA: PILLSBURY STATE FOREST
In 1994, Global ReLeaf helped local foresters in central Minnesota plant 13,000 white pine seedlings. Now, 10 years later, the trees are growing strong, welcome news to the pearl crescent butterfly. This butterfly, similar in coloring to the monarch, tolerates a variety of habitats, but never turns down a spacious pine forest.
VIRGINIA: DIFFICULT RUN
AMERICAN FORESTS' efforts to replant trees on the banks of Difficult Run Stream, in suburban Fairfax County, Virginia, just outside Washington, DC, have yielded fantastic results. Trees stabilize the ecosystem for butterflies like the great purple hairstreak. Its prevalence in Virginia is owed, in part, to the success of conservation and habitat preservation efforts such as AMERICAN FORESTS' Global ReLeaf Forest at Difficult Run.
Yale senior Will Clattenburg interned in AMERICAN FORESTS' publications department this past summer.
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|Title Annotation:||Jose Luis Alvarez|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2004|
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