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The voice at the other end of the line was frantic and frustrated. "Benji, we've got a crisis," the speaker lamented. Emotional callers were all in a day's work for Benji Brumberg, who for the past three years had been the ombudsman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). He was, in essence, the complaint department. This call in October 2001, however, set in motion what was probably Brumberg's finest hour as the department's representative of the people in Tallahassee.
The caller was Jeff Glassberg, president of the North American Butterfly Association. For almost three years, Glassberg had been cajoling and beseeching the federal government to list the Miami Blue butterfly as an endangered species. Once covering all of Florida, the tiny and brilliant-azure butterfly had dwindled to a score living in Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key. The feds, however, had placed a moratorium on listing any new species, saying they lacked the funds to complete the paperwork required for new enrollment.
To Glassberg, there could not have been a more apt and needy candidate for federal protection than the Miami Blue. "This is the only place in the U.S. where it's found," he recalls. "It's not a subspecies. It used to be common all over Florida; now it's down to one colony. There's nothing that fits the definition of 'endangered species' in the United States more than this butterfly."
The situation seemed dire. Miami Blue watchers had alerted Glassberg to what they said was a depletion of the state park's supply of nickerbean, a prickly, inhospitable (for humans, anyway) plant that serves as the species' sole host plant for breeding. State workers were also spraying the area with insecticides to combat mosquitoes, they said. "I started making calls to see what could be done," Glassberg says. "Some of the people said I should talk to the ombudsman. I got hold of Benji."
Brumberg's role in the complex, delicate, highly political mission of saving a butterfly would solidify his reputation as a master facilitator who was solidly green yet pragmatic and politically savvy enough to gain the confidence of those who hold the power.
"It's tough to get something done on the merits," Glassberg says. "Unless you're a big, powerful lobby, unless it's coming from some internal pressure, it's unusual for anyone to sit up and say, 'This is the right thing to do.' I think the main thing for Benji was knowing who to talk to and having the ear of people in state government -- and on the outside. On our own, there is a lot of bureaucratic resistance. With Benji, he was whispering in people's ears. Things got done."
In April of last year, though, at the height of his success, Brumberg quietly left his ombudsman job, and the position was eliminated. Amid a swirl of rumors that he'd ruffled too many feathers, Brumberg withdrew to the home he and his wife were building in Georgia and became as elusive as the Miami Blue. Until Brumberg recently sat for several lengthy interviews with New Times, he'd stayed mum about his years as ombudsman for the DEP, the agency charged with protecting the state's water, air, and soil from polluters.
Environmental activists assert that if ever the public has needed a strong ombudsman at that agency, it does now. Some say that Jeb Bush's administration -- and in particular the DEP, under the leadership of Secretary David Struhs -- has steadily shunted aside grassroots input in favor of big business and developers. Struhs has taken a business-minded approach to enforcement, which, critics say, has led to lax enforcement, backroom permit deals, and a cozy relationship between the biggest polluters and the DEP. The Florida Sierra Club went so far last summer as to call on the governor to fire Struhs.
Mark Ferrulo of the Florida Public Interest Research Group charges that the DEP, rather than working to protect the Florida environment, "is generally working on the behalf of the large, powerful special interests."
"They place business profits on the same, if not higher, level than environmental protection," Ferrulo says. "There are plenty of agencies and departments in the state that look out for businesses' bottom lines and so forth. So why is the one agency that should be out there to protect the environment doing the same thing?"
Until Brumberg hit the road last spring, the ombudsman's office had been the one entry point to the DEP for environmentalists like Glassberg. Brumberg brought to the position a canny ability to draw together vying interests, cut through red tape, and broker deals that everyone could live with. Never was that skill more apparent than during the Miami Blue emergency.
Brumberg responded immediately to Glassberg's plea, making arrangements to fly to Big Pine Key and marshaling the movers and shakers he'd become acquainted with since Jeb Bush had plucked him from Broward County in 1999. He brought with him Jack Moller, a hunter and conservationist who is also vice chairman of the Acquisition Restoration Council, a consortium that advises the state cabinet on what environmentally sensitive properties the state should buy and preserve. Moller was both politically connected and highly regarded within the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which was to play a key role. They were joined at Big Pine Key by Dennis Olle, vice chair of the Tropical Audubon Society. Along with park staff, they surveyed the trails, looking for the once-plentiful creature. There were a few sightings of small blue butterflies, but they couldn't be certain they were the Miami Blue.