EL ROSARIO, Mexico -- The dead butterflies came up to his ankles, an ocean of orange and black that spread as far as he could see.
On a mountaintop in central Mexico, Bill Toone stepped lightly. He had helped save the California condor. He had protected species around the world. But he was not prepared for this. The piles of monarch butterflies - estimates would put the figure at 250 million dead - were so thick that they were composting at the bottom.
The butterflies in the El Rosario sanctuary froze to death that winter of 2002, victims of a cold brought on not only by the vagaries of weather but also, Toone says, by illegal logging that is systematically destroying their habitat.
The forest acts like a blanket, protecting the butterflies from extremes in temperature. Without it, they freeze.
But the forest, like the butterflies, is disappearing. More than a thousand acres were cut in the butterfly sanctuary last year, and in the last decade the number of monarchs migrating to Mexico declined from 900 million to 340 million, according to scientists and the World Wildlife Fund.
The butterfly is a harbinger of larger human troubles facing rural communities spread across the mountains of central Mexico: extreme poverty, a scarcity of water, a lack of jobs. The loss of the forest, and the monarchs, could also mean the end for these communities. The forest traps moisture and releases it into canals built along the mountainsides. The communities use the water for cooking, washing, drinking and irrigating crops.
There is no other source of water. As deforestation has accelerated, communities have seen their water supply cut by half or more. Canals that once gushed now trickle.
"There's this realization that the end is in sight," says Toone, a gray-haired 51-year-old conservationist from San Diego. "There's only so much land they own, and they're watching it go empty. This can't go on forever."
Several of the communities that make up the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a rugged 139,000-acre sanctuary, are waiting no longer for the government's help. They are arming themselves, forming patrols and standing up to the loggers who are taking their trees, and with them, their future.
On a bright morning this spring, Vincente Guzman Reyes gathered his horses and his guns. He packed soda bottles, tortillas, meat and vegetables into a bag. He tucked a 9mm under the waistband of his jeans. Then he climbed onto his horse and set off into the forest.
Every man over the age of 18 in his community, Donacio Ejido, is required to participate in the patrols. They are not paid. Several times a year, each man goes up the mountain in a group of seven. For 30 hours, they watch over their 3,000 acres - looking for tire tracks, for cuts in the barbed wire fence that marks their land, for any sign of logging.
"If we stopped patrolling for a day or two, nothing would happen," Guzman says. "But if we stopped for a week, 100 trees would be gone."
A few years ago, because of a miscommunication, the forest wasn't patrolled for three days. In that time, an area the size of a football field was clear-cut.
One night on patrol this spring, the buzz of a chainsaw pierced the still, cold air. Guzman and six other men were warming themselves around a campfire, telling ghost stories. (One man insisted that if you point a gun at a coyote, it won't fire.) But at the faint sound of the saw, the storytelling stopped and the men listened.
"It's too far," Guzman said finally, meaning whoever was cutting trees in the dark of the night was not cutting their trees. There was nothing the men could do.
The lure of logging is easy to see. In the mountainous region between Mexico City and the Pacific, jobs are hard to find. Some people grow avocados, mangoes and corn, but the cost of getting the produce to market makes it almost impossible to turn a profit.
The tall fir and pine trees are more valuable and, at one time, were plentiful. But many mountainsides are now bare. From the road, they look naked and exposed against the blue sky. Communities sell their trees to paper companies, but also use them to build homes and for firewood. In the butterfly reserve, 100,000 trees are cut every year for personal use.
But there are only so many trees. The World Wildlife Fund reports that 183 acres were deforested in the reserve in 2001. That figure rose to 1,139 acres last year. In just the last six years - the only period for which there is data - more than 3,000 acres of the reserve's 33,000-acre core zone were lost to logging.
The loggers have become more aggressive - moving onto protected lands as other areas are clear-cut, and bribing officials to gain access and escape punishment, according to Toone and other advocates.
Donacio Ejido has taken the lead in protecting its forest. When Guzman became head of the community of 3,000 people several years ago, he banned logging and jailed those who continued to cut trees. He organized the patrols. And, with the other men, he dug ditches five feet deep in the roads that traversed the forest, so logging trucks couldn't pass.
The stakes, Guzman says, are high: "If we finish the forest, we finish the water."
He is a strong, compact man with the build of the jockey he once was. For years, he trained and rode horses at Mexican racetracks. He even cut trees once, from 1975 to 1985. The pay was good - sometimes up to $20 a day - and it helped him support his wife and nine children. But eventually he realized that short-term profit would mean long-term disaster.
"I thought to myself: My children, how will they eat? How will they live?" says Guzman, 50.
Other communities are following Donacio Ejido's lead. They have planted thousands of trees. Several have begun patrols of their own, and at night the patrols from each community greet each other with a shotgun blast. Partly because of this vigilance, the acres of trees lost to logging fell to 603 for the last 12-month period.
Toone has also helped, using his San Diego-based EcoLife Foundation, to organize the communities to protest en masse and distribute efficient stoves that require less wood than traditional ones. Some communities at first distrusted outsiders, and some of the 200 stoves that were distributed were vandalized.
But now, Toone says, communities welcome the help.
"Every time a forest is cut to completion or a monarch butterfly colony disappears," he says, "it's a job that ends and it means that fathers will leave their families and children to make money somewhere else."
To protect the trees that remain, the patrols are essential. Guzman goes up the mountain every few weeks, to make up for five of his sons who are working in the U.S. He takes their shifts to keep them in good standing in the community.
The patrols begin with a three-hour horseback ride up the 11,000-foot mountain. At the top, the new group meets the departing patrol group, trades information and sets up camp. The men find a clearing, toss blankets on the ground and set a fire for lunch using fallen branches. They travel light: food, water, blankets, guns. No alcohol is allowed.
Monarch butterflies flutter around the men as they continue through the forest. Guzman, who grew up here and helped build the canals down the mountain, knows the land better than anyone. He points out orange flowers that smell like tobacco and make delicious tea, and red flowers with a fluid in the stalk that tastes like honey. He plucks them as he walks.
A hike of several hours turns up nothing suspect. In some places, the forest is so dense that Guzman and the others must crawl on their knees to pass under thick canopies of vegetation. In others, where there has been recent cutting, the trees are only as high as the men's shoulders, as vulnerable as children.
At night, the men gather around a campfire, warming tortillas on the embers and looking at the planes crossing overhead in the clear sky. The highest ones, they say, are going the farthest - to Washington, to New York, to San Francisco, cities that are only words to them.
Lincoln Brower remembers the first time he came upon a monarch colony in Mexico. It was 1977, and Brower had been studying the butterfly for two decades. When he learned that millions of them clustered together each winter in these mountains, he went to see for himself.
In 1974, an American businessman in Mexico read about butterflies sighted in the nearby mountains and passed word along to National Geographic magazine, which sent a reporter. The story ran in August 1976, and scientists finally learned where the monarchs spend the winter.
"You just couldn't believe it," Brower says, describing the thick clouds of butterflies he encountered on his first trip. When the sun warmed them during the day, they would alight from the trees, the cumulative sound of their beating wings creating an audible buzz. "It was just the most incredible, amazing thing I had ever seen."
But to get to that colony, he had to drive up a logging road. And even then, 30 years ago, he could see that the forest was disappearing. Brower, now 75 and a professor at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, had been fascinated by the monarch's migratory pattern.
A complete migration - from southern Canada and the northern United States to the central Mexico sanctuary and back - takes three or four generations of butterflies. One of these is a "super-generation" that lives seven months - five times longer than the other generations - and travels 2,800 miles on the strength of its five-inch wingspan.
"There's nothing like it anywhere in the world," Brower says. "Unlike birds, the monarch is going back to the same exact spot, as if there's some kind of computer program in their brain."
But that amazing ability to return to the same place each year may also doom the butterflies because those places have fewer and fewer trees. "And then," Brower says, "they freeze."
He lobbied the Mexican government to protect the butterflies, and in 1986 a presidential decree created the butterfly reserve, an area about the size of Chicago. In 2000, Brower helped revise the plan to protect the reserve. But he said enforcement has been lax.
"I frankly think the Mexican government has proven themselves over 30 years of not being able to protect these butterflies," he says. "They have had 30 years to get their act together, and they just haven't."
The country's forestry police is stretched thin and susceptible to bribes, say local officials. The locations of checkpoints to stop logging trucks are widely known and easily evaded. The army is busy fighting the drug cartels.
The butterflies suffered two massive die-offs in recent years - one in 2002 where 250 million died and another two years later, when over 100 million died. All of them froze to death.
Brower said a perfect storm of events - a poor migration year in the U.S., followed by a cold winter in Mexico and then dry weather for the migration back north - could wipe out the monarchs entirely.
'There is no forest'
A lifetime in conservation has taken Bill Toone from Antarctica to Paraguay to Papua New Guinea. He helped develop and run the San Diego Zoo's California condor recovery program, collecting eggs in the field and raising condors in captivity.
And ultimately, he realized that his work had to be about more than protecting animals and resources. "Conservation is about nothing," he says, "if it's not about people in the end."
The monarch butterfly is the perfect illustration of that belief. Its fight for survival is also the fight of the small communities clustered on the mountains.
Not all of them are winning. In Escovales, a few mountaintops away from Guzman's community, the swarms of butterflies that once came each winter are gone. Loggers took thousands of trees from this community in the past 15 years, without paying or asking permission.
"There is no forest," says Alejandro Salgado Flores, 48, "and there are no butterflies."
Salgado, who has lived in the community most of his life, says the butterflies were considered gifts from the spirits, and good luck. But they have vanished, and the water is going, too. Escovales is about halfway up the side of a mountain. Its water supply is dictated by the communities higher up. They take what they want, and when they cut trees, that means there is even less water to go around.
"There is going to be a war over the lack of water," Salgado says, "and it is caused by the logging."
Toone knew it wasn't enough to tell rural Mexicans to save the forests for the sake of the butterflies. They had to do it for themselves.
The Eco-Life Foundation, founded in 2003, is helping in two key ways: First, it has set up a Web site (morethanmonarchs.org) in English and Spanish where residents, local governments and law enforcement agencies communicate with each other and organize.
Second, Eco-Life is paying for fuel-efficient mud and concrete stoves to be built and distributed. Two hundred have been delivered so far, at a cost of $150 each. Another 500 are due this year. The stoves are called Lorenas and come with a plaque that reads, "My name is Lorena and I'm a friend of the butterflies."
The stoves provide an immediate impact by significantly reducing use of firewood, Toone says. Urgent action, he says, is needed. The communities are realizing they must stop the logging without waiting for the government to step in.
"If we wait until all the social programs are in place to address all the social ills in this part of Mexico," Toone says, "the forest will be long gone."
Stephen Kiehl traveled to Mexico on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project at the Johns Hopkins University.