Like the first fluttery flakes of an approaching snowstorm, the monarch butterflies that every year make the 2,500-mile trek from Canada in search of a warm winter home are beginning their silent convergence on the central Mexican state of Michoacan.
Soon they will descend on the Sierra Madre highlands here by the tens of millions. But unlike their silent arrival, discussion of the impact of the orange-and-black-winged insect on the people who inhabit the state's fir forests will not be so quiet.
The pitch of the discussion has not yet reached that of the debate that shook the United States a few years ago, when the loggers of Washington State confronted proponents of the endangered spotted owl inhabiting ancient forests there. But the central issue that frames the debate of woodcutters and monarch preservationists in eastern Michoacan is much the same: Is there a place in the forest for both, or must the flourishing of one side mean the demise of the other?
And just as the spotted owl controversy portended in the US the growing confrontation between local property-rights advocates and federal land management efforts, the debate in Mexico over the monarch's winter home is fueled increasingly by landowners and woodcutters who want more local control of their resources.
''Our problem is not the monarch butterfly but the government,'' says Manuel Mondragon Cruz, a woodcutter from a small cooperative sawmill near Zitacuaro. Tired of what he calls the government's ''imposition from afar,'' Mr. Mondragon this summer helped organize an alliance of woodcutters seeking more local participation in management of the five monarch butterfly reserves the Mexican government declared nine years ago.
''We have nothing against the monarchs - in fact, we think we can profit from them coming here - but we also have to feed our families,'' he says. ''The way the government issues decrees about this land, it seems they care more for the butterflies than for the people who live here.''
As with so many environmental controversies around the world, a basic problem in Michoacan is the encroachment of people onto greater swatches of land. More than 450,000 people live in the eastern part of Michoacan where most of the monarchs choose to winter. (Some spend part of their stay next door in the state of Mexico.) Most of that population is poor, and some 80 percent live either directly or indirectly off the forests.
In 1986, the Mexican government established five monarch reserves totalling almost 30,000 acres. Each mountaintop reserve has a core area where no logging is allowed, surrounded by a buffer zone where logging is supposed to be strictly regulated.
BUT even some state officials in Michoacan say the reserves have not really fulfilled their purpose, largely because clandestine logging has not been controlled and income-producing alternatives for the local people have not been promoted.
''The federal government has talked about job-creating alternatives, but all they've done is spend a lot of money with very little result,'' says Antonio Baca Diaz, executive director of the state's Commission for Development of the Monarch Butterfly Region. ''We suggest that the federal government cede its land-management powers to the state.''
A decade of federal management has left the monarch reserves ''in a deteriorated state, subject to heavy clandestine tree-cutting,'' Mr. Baca Diaz says. ''The basic problem is alternative work opportunities for the campesinos,'' he adds. ''If we don't succeed in that, I fear for the survival of the monarch butterfly.''
The regional development commission has come up with a $3 million, three-year pilot development program that includes more value-added wood production for the locals, plus such alternatives to woodcutting as fish-farming, honey production, even shiitake mushroom cultivation. Ecotourism is also part of the plan. But local officials and the woodcutters alliance suspect federal officials have shown little interest in the plan because it was not generated from Mexico City.
In fact, the local population has been mistrustful of the capital, at least since a Mexico City TV journalist came to Michoacan a few years ago to report on the monarchs.
When the program was aired, it painted the local population as butterfly-devouring ignoramuses. And the next time the journalist ventured to Michoacan, he was met with pitchforks.
Still, not everyone is so critical of the federal government's effort to protect the monarchs. ''The fact remains that the government's action has slowed the rate of forest destruction'' in Michoacan, says Alfonso Alonso, a Mexican monarch butterfly specialist at the University of Florida. ''What the [local] people tend to forget is that if it weren't for the monarchs and the policies designed to protect them, the forests they live from would already be gone.''
The reserves have only been a partial success, Mr. Alonso says. He says one, Chivati-Huacal, has been completely logged despite the regulations, while most of the reforestation programs are poorly implemented. He is also skeptical of the idea of local control. ''That generally has meant leaving people free to profit from the forest now,'' he says, ''with very little vision about how these woods can be preserved for 50 or 100 years from now.''
Some local woodcutters like Mondragon say they don't seek to be left alone to develop their region, but want other countries and international development organizations to become involved.
Because of its migration, the monarch butterfly was chosen to symbolize the environmental component of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Last month, Canada followed Mexico's lead by setting up three monarch reserves along the Great Lakes. Citing these examples of international interest in the monarchs, the woodcutters and state officials say the NAFTA countries and international development agencies like the World Bank should help promote alternative development projects in the fir forest of Michoacan.
What they say they don't want are programs imposed from somewhere else that don't include the local population in their development and management. ''We've had that experience before,'' says Mondragon, ''and it's doomed to fail.''
The ultimate failure would be if a way for the local population and the monarchs to live together was not found. That would mean the end of the monarchs - something that butterfly experts say could happen within the first years of the next century. But the results of programs like Mexico's, however imperfect, give some experts like Alonso hope.
''It's a very complicated problem,'' Mondragon says, ''but I think what progress has been made suggests there is a way to respond to the people with their needs, and to the butterflies with their needs, too.''