For the Birds

Should 2700 little sparrows be allowed to hold up the reclaiming of the Everglades?

Paid $90,000 a year to assess the plight of the sparrow and plot its survival, Pimm sees the bird as "a flagship species" that indicates the health of the ecosystem. It is also a test. "If we can't save a bird that lives entirely on a federal preserve," Pimm asks rhetorically, "how can we save anything?"

When in South Florida, Pimm works in shorts and bare feet in a rented townhouse condominium in Key Largo, often at his late-model laptop computer while seated at a big desk on an aerie-like patio that opens onto a canopy of gumbo-limbo trees. A naturalized U.S. citizen, Pimm was born in Derbyshire, England, and still talks in the plummy tones of his Oxford undergraduate days.

"We are losing the sparrow because of massive mismanagement of water," he says, flipping open his computer to show a satellite photo of Florida that contrasts areas of wet and dry. "Everyone agrees that restoring the natural flow from northwest to southeast is the only way to save the Everglades."

Mike Clary
Bird bander David Okines, in Everglades National Park with student assistant Raquel Marques, is trying to net, measure, and number the world's dwindling population of Cape Sable seaside sparrows
Mike Clary
Bird bander David Okines, in Everglades National Park with student assistant Raquel Marques, is trying to net, measure, and number the world's dwindling population of Cape Sable seaside sparrows

While Lehtinen and the tribe make routine expressions about caring for the Everglades, Pimm says, they are also insistent that water should not be moved from west to east until residents of the east Everglades are protected by flood controls authorized by Congress in 1992. In the face of the sparrow's imminent peril, that position is "absurd," Pimm sniffs.

Some 300 homes have been built west of Krome Avenue, officially the Everglades, but Pimm declines to speculate about the tribe's motives in supporting the residents of the controversial 8.5 Square Mile Area, a sort of West Bank squatter settlement. Pimm and other environmentalists insist that those residents must be bought out and relocated before natural water flows are restored. Some critics have suggested that the tribe may be looking at more development near its gambling casino at Krome Avenue and SW Eighth Street and that water would threaten those plans.

Indeed, the Miccosukees recently alarmed environmentalists by quietly buying 223 acres of land near the casino that was earmarked as a flood-control reservoir. Cypress has declined comment on any development plans, and so too does Lehtinen. "You have to ask the chairman [Cypress] about that," he says.

But Lehtinen will talk -- bluntly -- about Pimm and the sparrow. "He is an egotistical philosopher king, running a shell game with a lot of B.S.," Lehtinen declares. Of the bird, Lehtinen says, "It's an invasive species, living in a degraded habitat. This is a whole bogus deal from the get-go."

The adjective most often applied to Lehtinen over the years is feisty. He looks like a man who wakes up eager to go ten rounds. His face bears disfiguring shrapnel scars from the Vietnam War, where he served as an Army lieutenant, and his style is frontal assault.

Married to U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and a former state senator himself, Lehtinen fired one of the first volleys in the battle of the Everglades when, as a U.S. attorney in Miami in 1988, he sued the state of Florida for failing to enforce its own pollution standards in permitting corporate sugar growers to pump dirty water back into the ecosystem. The 1991 settlement of the case, in which the state agreed to build filtering marshes paid for in part by Big Sugar, signaled the start of the Everglades cleanup.

On a recent Saturday morning, Lehtinen, who is 55 years old, shows up at a delicatessen near his Kendall office in an open-collar dress shirt carrying a sheaf of court transcripts, depositions, and scientific studies. Between mouthfuls of fried eggs and grits, he rummages through the papers to buttress his arguments against foes he labels "the enviros and the Endangered Species Act nuts."

"Do you know that the enviros have actually sued in the name of the bird?" he begins, whipping his glasses off to fix a reporter with an intensity that invites no response. "They made the bird a plaintiff in a lawsuit! That is so silly."

But it is not the silliness that most galls Lehtinen. No, what really infuriates Lehtinen and his chief client, the Miccosukees, is what he calls Pimm's poor science in support of claims that the bird's numbers are declining.

"They are not doing anything for that bird," Lehtinen says. "But it is politically useful. They are using it and the Endangered Species Act as an excuse to gain regulatory control of the water management system. That is the enviros' goal: to control water delivery themselves."

For all of their differences -- to say nothing of their personal animosity for each other -- Pimm and Lehtinen agree on the ultimate aim of this squabble: clean water and an Everglades ecosystem that resembles the one Marjory Stoneman Douglas described in The Everglades: River of Grass. But the restoration project is stunningly complex, impossibly long-term, and no sure thing to succeed. Stuart J. Appelbaum, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers chief in charge of the whole project, told the Washington Post in June that he had no idea if it would work.

Thus, it is not surprising that a single issue dominates the debate. And the conundrum posed by the sparrow is real, involving the movement of water, avian science, politics, and the long-simmering resentment of the tribe.

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