The same day President Bush rolled back the ban on roads in the last 60 million acres of undisturbed national forest, National Public Radio ran a feature on how monarch butterflies use ultraviolet light to migrate. Monarchs have eye and brain cells that detect UV light and transform it into a three-dimensional navigational grid. The monarch can recalibrate the grid, sometimes at cruising altitudes of 10,000 feet, to fly faithfully from the mountains of Mexico to your backyard garden.
Monarch neural expert Steven Reppert of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center told NPR, ''the animal actually knows at every sort of minute or every hour how they need to correct for the information they're getting from the sun or the daylight sky."
Just as we discover how our most delicate creatures stay on course, the White House veers into the ditch. The lifting of the road ban in the deep forest and the monarch might not seem connected, as the monarch's breeding and eating priorities in the United States are sunny fields, pastures, and roadsides that harbor milkweed and nectar flowers, not forests. But an expert who has studied monarchs for half a century says the development-at-all-costs mentality that puts monarch migration at risk is the same one behind the repeal.
''Mr. Bush is an incredible ignoramus and utterly oblivious," said biologist Lincoln Brower of Sweet Briar College in Virginia, who has studied monarchs for half a century. ''I don't understand how so many of the nation's leaders are so massively ignorant and no one stands up to this. I don't understand why Bush does not seem to have a single person who can tell him how these decisions add up to a disastrous effect on the whole environment."
After talking with Brower over the telephone Monday, it was clear that the biggest thing connecting monarch migration and the road ban rollback was fragmentation. Brower said monarchs as a species are not endangered, but the migration is. The butterfly is losing its wintering mountains in Mexico, where millions of them famously cluster, to illegal logging. In its summer grounds of the United States and Canada, fragmentation happens in the form of sterilization. Suburban tracts and their asphalt and pesticide-protected lawns are wiping out meadows. On farms, herbicides meant to protect crops wipe out everything else.
''I was in one spot in Minnesota last August where standing on the edge of the road, you could see nothing but soybeans," Brower said. ''Even with binoculars, I could not spot one single weed. What really blew my mind was I took a two-mile walk and I counted just one bumble bee.
''To see just one bumble bee is a real sign of how industrialized agriculture is eliminating natural pollinators on a national scale. I listen to all those Archer Daniels Midland ads about feeding the world. But at what cost? Everyone thinks pesticides are only insecticides. We should call them biocides."
Brower echoes many environmentalists who fear that if states approve new roads in the forests, species that need continuous, dense cover will be threatened. ''It's like putting holes in an umbrella," Brower said. ''Each road you cut opens up the forest to plant invasions with seeds on the tires of vehicles. We've already seen what happens to migrations of some species when you cut off their habitat with fences and roads, such as the wildebeest (the wildebeest population of central and southern Botswana dropped 94 percent from the 1980s through the mid-1990s after cattle fences disrupted their migration)."
The monarch feature on NPR ended with ''all the sophisticated navigational gear in the world won't do much good if the monarch butterfly has nothing to eat and nowhere to go." Brower has called the monarch the ''canary in the cornfield." He said he used to think it might be 20 years before we lose the monarch migration at the current rate of habitat loss.
Decisions like the one Bush made to reopen the forests to road building make Brower concerned that the United States is speeding up the destruction of the overall environment even faster.
''At some point, the fabric starts to unravel," Brower said. ''People ask me, What's the difference whether we have a monarch migration or not? I say, Why do we care about the Mona Lisa or classical music? We care because it is a cultural treasure. We have to start viewing the natural world as a cultural treasure."
© 2005 Boston Globe