THE cadmium sky disappears behind a diaphanous orange cascade. Spilling from the highland firs, millions of Monarch butterflies stretch their tiny black-etched wings, creating a sound like the patter of gentle rain.
After five months of hibernation in Mexico, some 100 million monarchs are beginning a homeward trek of up to 5,000 miles to the United States and Canada.
Next fall, the great-grandchildren of these lepidopterans - guided by an inherited internal compass - will make the remarkable journey back to 12 small pockets of forest in the mountains west of Mexico City.
They will return, as they have for thousands of years, assuming their winter refuge still exists.
"If the legal and illegal logging continues, in less than 15 years the monarch migration will collapse. They'll have nowhere to go," says Lincoln Brower, a zoology professor at the University of Florida who has studied the monarch migration for 17 years.
The coming months before the rainy season are the most productive for loggers. "This is the most critical time for the Monarch habitat. They have flown north. The tourists are gone. And the government vigilance fades away. This is the most dangerous, most destructive season," says Homero Aridjis, president of the Group of 100 environmental organization.
Some of the forests here should be conserved by a 1986 presidential decree setting aside five sites as protected biospheres. But in the last two years, two of these mountaintop sanctuaries have been completely deforested. Illegal logging has also taken its toll on the other three. "The laws and decrees haven't been enforced," explains Carlos Gottfried, president of Monarcha A.C., a Mexican group dedicated to saving the butterflies.
Specialists estimate that up to 70 percent of the Monarch population died during its 1992 winter season in Mexico. In February of this year, scientists, government officials, and ecologists gathered for the first time to discuss the plight of the brilliant butterfly.
The conferees concluded that an abnormal cold snap was the primary reason for the high mortality rate, according to a statement by the Secretariat of Agriculture and Hydraulic Resources.
"Baloney," scoffs Professor Brower. "The mortality rate went up because the forests were thinner. The forest is like a blanket for the Monarchs. Now there are holes in the blanket, so they freeze to death." He says the butterfly deaths in 1992 are a warning. "If we ignore it, we will lose them forever."
In recent years, the Mexican government has begun extensive reforestation programs. This year, guards have been posted around the butterfly sanctuaries by the newly formed federal office of the Attorney General for the Environment. Local citizens-watch committees have formed.
But Manuel Mondragon y Kalb, Mexico's undersecretary of forests and wildlife, acknowledges that clandestine logging continues. "We've tightened up on logging permits. We've closed dozens of illegal sawmills. But it's impossible for a few technical supervisors to be everywhere," he says.
Mr. Mondragon y Kalb and environmentalists agree that the solutions lie in creating alternative sources of income for local residents. The butterfly refuges are in the poorest regions in Mexico. People here clear the forests to create more land to grow corn and beans to feed their children.
"The people need wood for houses, to cook, and to sell so they can eat the next day," Mondragon y Kalb observes.
The town of El Rosario is the alternative economic model that ecologists such as the Monarcha group would like to duplicate in at least three other sanctuaries. This community of some 3,000 people has two relatively new sources of income: tourism and a sawmill.
After a 40-minute bone-jarring ride up a dirt road that goes through two streams (no bridges), tourists are charged 10 pesos ($3.25) per car at the entrance to the village. At the forest edge, each adult is charged another 10 pesos and each child 5 pesos ($1.65). This year an estimated 50,000 tourists came to see this concentration of Monarch butterflies, discovered by scientists just 20 years ago.
The tourist income, after paying some 20 employees (guides, guards, maintenance workers, store clerks) at the information and crafts center, is split among the 270 families of the El Rosario ejido - a communal land-ownership system.
"Most of it is spent on fixing up houses and on fertilizer for more productive crops of corn," says Roberto Contrerras, secretary general of the ejido and manager of the tourism center.
Last year, after much rancorous debate, the forests in and around this butterfly sanctuary were closed off to local loggers. Instead, a more lucrative income source has been developed. The ejido now has its own sawmill.
"Less trees are cut for better earnings," says Ema Gonzalez Tellez, whose grandfather is an ejiditario. "Before we'd get about 700 pesos [$229] for an average tree. Now we can sell the same amount of wood, cut up in the mill, for 2,300 pesos [$752]."
Instead of selling logs to state or private entities that don't reinvest the profits in the local communities, the ejido can now sell cut lumber at a higher price. "This gives the forest a greater economic value for the locals. Clearing and planting corn is no longer an economically viable use for the land," says Mr. Gottfried of Monarcha, which has encouraged the development of the sawmill.
THE trees cut for the sawmill don't come from the butterfly sanctuary and are covered by government permits. Still, no logging occurs during the tourist season.
Gottfried would like to help other communities living near sanctuaries develop similar alternative sources of income. But bureaucratic obstacles at the state and federal level, combined with a corrupt system of logging permits, have prevented such efforts, he says. Records of logging permits are not open to the public.
But tourism and locally owned sawmills alone aren't the solution. They don't provide enough jobs. Ms. Gonzalez's brothers, like many young men in El Rosario, still must go to the city or the US to find work. "We need manufacturing jobs. Maybe a clothing factory or butterfly-crafts workshop," suggests Juan Carmen Contreras, a resident and guide.
The February conference came up with a list of recommendations to save the Monarchs, including enlarging the buffer zones around the sanctuaries, alternative development projects, more research, and a presidential commission to unify the efforts of environmentalists and various state and federal entities. There has been no reply to the commission proposal yet.
Environmentalists such as Mr. Aridjis are pushing to include protection for the Monarch in the negotiations begun in March on parallel environmental legislation to be attached to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The butterfly is already on Mexican NAFTA letterhead, as a symbol of trinational unity. "The future of the Monarch is very clearly a priority of [President Carlos Salinas de Gortari]," Mondragon y Kalb says.
Aridjis says he hopes to see more evidence of that presidential commitment. "I was born in those forests. I remember as a child, the rivers of Monarchs passing through the air. To me, the destruction of the sanctuaries is like the destruction of my childhood memories."