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Butterflies stir town's soul; Nature: Wilton, N.Y., enlists in effort to save Karner blue species.


WILTON, N.Y. - It is tiny and dainty and flits by so quickly that many residents here have never actually spied the Karner blue butterfly. But no matter. Who can resist the idea of saving a butterfly, particularly if doing so can also save a town's soul?

Wilton, in the Adirondack foothills just north of Saratoga Springs, was hardscrabble back country in the early 1960s, distinguished only by the mountaintop cabin in which Ulysses S. Grant died. It had fewer than 400 residents. But then Interstate 87 the Northway, as it is known here roared through. And in what seemed like the flutter of a butterfly's wings, Wilton turned into a tract-house bedroom community of 15,000 for Albany's workers, a distribution hub for companies like Ace Hardware, and the site of a mall.

Roy McDonald, the Republican town supervisor and a longtime proponent of development, realized a few years ago that it was Wilton's rural character that drew him here and that he ought to work on salvaging what remained. His idea was to create a nature preserve, but he knew that buying land for such a project can be tough on taxpayers and fatal for a politician.

Then he learned that the area he wanted to preserve happened to be one of the largest habitats east of the Mississippi for the imperiled Karner blue. So the Karner blue, officially declared an endangered species in 1992, has become the banner that is stirring local hearts and serving to pry open government and private coffers.

"If there was no butterfly we'd be doing this anyway, but the butterfly gives us the mystique," McDonald said.

The Karner blue, with characteristic iridescent blue wings, was named after a now-vanished nearby hamlet by Vladimir Nabokov, a lepidopterist as well as the author of "Lolita." Like 11-year-olds who will dine only on chicken nuggets and plain pasta, the Karner blue is a picky eater. Its caterpillar savors only the leaf of the wild blue lupine, a wildflower with violet-blue blossoms that thrives in sunny meadows. The adult female, which has all of a one-inch wingspan, lays its eggs on the blue lupine's leaves before it dies.

Blue lupine, though, is being gobbled up by suburban sprawl and so the Karner blue's populations have been dwindling, disappearing entirely in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maine.

Three years ago, Lynn LaMontagne, a regional manager of the Nature Conservancy, noticed that a one-acre parcel of Karner blue habitat was being sold for back taxes. She asked McDonald if the town would buy the property and let her organization manage it. She didn't realize how modest her sights were.

"How about 2 to 3,000 acres?" is what McDonald remembers telling her before he laid out his dream for a wildlife preserve that could at the same time protect the butterfly habitat.

Throughout history, butterflies have been symbols of freedom, romance, and whimsy, and the notion of saving a butterfly, as opposed to some esoteric snake or rodent, seems to have enchanted and galvanized Wilton residents.

Violet Opdahl donated 45 acres of farmland that her family had owned since 1930, a tax write-off she had been planning anyway but that now had a noble rationale.

"We spent our childhood in those fields and woods," the 74-year-old Ms. Opdahl said. "I was concerned if I sold it would end up in the hands of developers and I didn't want that."

Businessmen rallied around the bug. The Marriott family, which manufactures portable toilets, and Marcel Zucchino, president of an instruments manufacturer, pledged that they would not expand their businesses into blue lupine habitat. Ace Hardware donated shovels and chain saws for conservation workers.

Teachers passed out blue lupine seeds for children to grow in their backyards. Property owners promised to mow their land to keep it as meadow rather then letting it turn to woodland.

LaMontagne, who is executive director of what has become the Wilton Wildlife Preserve and Park, estimates that $1.4 million has come in from New York state, the conservancy and private donors for land purchases. Five hundred acres have already been acquired; an additional 615 acres are under negotiation.

McDonald, a hard-nosed investment banker, does not seem to be a pushover for ethereal creatures like butterflies. He even calculates that his campaign for the butterfly might get Republicans some credit with environmentally conscious voters. But he is grateful to the fragile Karner blue for helping him build a park for his hometown's pleasure.

"If I didn't have the butterfly," he said, "I would have to invent something like it."

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