Monarch butterfly (Credit: David Gomez/Istockphoto LP)
In areas where deforestation has taken a devastating toll on habitat, the most effective conservation is sometimes the most direct: digging holes and planting trees. Since 1990, American Forest’s Global ReLeaf program has planted nearly 40 million trees to restore forest ecosystems. Some of them are in the Michoacán highlands of Mexico, host to monarch butterflies. After flying some 3,000 miles from Northeastern United States and Canada to central Mexico, the monarchs winter in local oyamel fir and conifer trees. By the early 1990s, this habitat was largely cut over, replaced by plowed fields and bare slopes (see American Forests, Winter 2009). The deforestation was so threatening to the winter hibernation habitat that the North American monarch migration has been classified as an endangered biological phenomenon.
Recognizing a potential crisis, in 1997, the La Cruz Habitat Protection Project (LCHPP) began distributing trees to small landowners and communities. It has planted more than five million native cedars, oyamel firs and six species of pines, nearly one million of these through support from American Forests. What’s good for the butterflies is just as good for local landowners, says Sue Sill, executive director of LCHPP. The subsistence farmers, who have lived among the butterflies for many generations, are enjoying multiple benefits from the trees they are planting: stabilized soil,
a higher water table and income from timber sales.
“We measure success in what we see,” says Sill. “The mountains are becoming greener. The butterflies are thriving. The landowners and communities are pleased.”
Improving forest habitat here and across the United States offers some respite for at-risk species. However, as human populations continue to grow and development consumes more forestlands, success will require an even greater long-term commitment. It will require innovative management and partnerships. And it will require patience.
Wayburn still has not heard a northern spotted owl hoot from the Van Eck redwoods this fall. That doesn’t disturb her. After a century of logging with little regard to the habitat for these and other forest species, restoring complexity to Van Eck Forest will take time, she says. She is confident that reinvesting profits from logging and carbon storage will gradually return the land to a place where owls will feel welcome.
“The owls will be back,” Wayburn says with certainty. And the endangered, elusive marbled murrelet? “Yes! In a hundred years.”
Jane Braxton Little has published stories in Audubon, Scientific American and Utne Reader.
She writes from Plumas County, California.