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October 1, 2009

Butterfly habitat agreement signed
Calif., Mexico to work together on reforestation

Mike Lee
Union-Tribune Staff Writer

This undated handout photo provided by the journal Science shows migrating monarch butterflies. How do Monarch butterflies find their way to Mexico every fall? Turns out they orient to light using their antennas. How do we know? Researchers painted butterfly antennas black and the insects got lost. (AP Photo/Monarch Watch, Chip Taylor) - AP

After spending two decades trying to protect monarch butterflies, the leader of an Escondido-based nonprofit group yesterday joined officials from Mexico and California to launch a plan for restoring woodlands where up to 750 million of the insects spend their winters.

The ECOLIFE Foundation, created by conservation biologist Bill Toone, is a central player in a binational agreement signed to support reforestation and other forest management practices in the Sierra Madre mountain range in western Mexico. The pilot program was announced at the second Governors' Global Climate Summit in Los Angeles.

Officials in both countries aim to reduce levels of greenhouse gases by planting more trees, finding ways to safeguard the butterflies and generating jobs for indigenous communities in that area. A prime objective is to reduce illegal logging and wood harvesting for cooking and heating by hundreds of thousands of people who depend on the same forests as the monarchs.

Mexico's federal environmental agency, SEMARNAT, will develop sustainable forestry practices in the butterflies' range. That could pave the way for companies in California to eventually fund large tree farms in the Sierra Madre by buying “offsets” for their carbon emissions.

“Our goal is ultimately to see this become something that reaches a pace where it's sustainable — where the trees coming out of the forest are being more than adequately replaced in a timely way by the trees going in,” Toone said.

He started studying the monarchs two decades ago when his girlfriend — now wife — became intrigued by them. The couple traveled to Mexico to witness the insects' migration; these butterflies fly from across eastern North America to the Sierra Madre each winter.


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•Populations in eastern North America fly as far as 3,000 miles to their winter home in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico.

•They can travel 100 miles a day.

•The insects roost for the winter in oyamel fir trees.

•They cluster on branches to stay warm and feed heavily on milkweed.


“We were just overwhelmed by it,” Toone said. “When they leave the trees, the only thing you can hear is the roar of butterfly wings.”

Toone also started noticing problems, including large-scale die-offs that he linked to removal of oyamel firs in the upper reaches of the Sierra Madre. People there depend on the wood from those trees to heat for heating their homes and cooking their food.

“As trees are taken out of these forests . . . it punches holes in the forests, which is essentially the same as punching a hole in an insulating blanket on your bed,” said Toone, who retired in 2008 after a 36-year career with the Zoological Society of San Diego.

So he set out to address the problem in ways that made sense for the mountain residents and butterflies, including the distribution of highly efficient stoves that dramatically cut the amount of wood that families need.

In February, Toone took Carlsbad attorney Eleanor Musick on a trip to the Sierra Madre. Weeks later, Musick held a party and showed video footage from the journey to a group of attendees that included Linda Adams, secretary of California's Environmental Protection Agency.

“She was fascinated,” Musick said of Adams, who then introduced Toone to the top official at SEMARNAT and started talking about getting the state involved.

“Things moved very quickly,” Toone said. “Linda Adams doesn't start something she is not going to finish.”

Yesterday in Los Angeles, Adams signed the agreement with Mexico, saying it was a way to combat climate change and safeguard a beloved species.

“Effective solutions are not ones we are going to come across by working independently,” she said. “We must work together.”

Mike Lee: (619) 542-4570;

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