For the Birds

Page 3 of 7

But now it is not just God's eye on the sparrow. Everybody is watching.

To gauge the sparrow's importance to the pace and practice of Everglades restoration and to get closer to the heat generated by debate over the creature, it is instructive to compare chief antagonists on the issue -- Stuart Pimm, the government's lead scientist, and Dexter Lehtinen, the Miccosukees' attorney. They have met, briefly, at Everglades conferences and during courtroom hearings but have never had a conversation. They don't seem to like each other.

At first glance, Pimm and Lehtinen appear similar. Both are bulky, middle-aged, cocksure hard-chargers, educated and smart, whose ambition and competitiveness can often resemble arrogance. Each has absolute confidence in the correctness of his position. And on the sparrow, those positions could not be more different.

Pimm, who is 53 years old, is a high-profile academic who has published two books (the modestly titled The World According to Pimm, McGraw-Hill, 2001, is his latest) and scores of scientific papers on endangered species and ecosystems. Coming up with a plan to save the sparrow is not his only gig. With a gaggle of aides and graduate students, Pimm roams the globe, overseeing study projects in the Brazilian rainforest, on the Hawaiian honeycreeper, the spotted owl in Oregon, elephants in Africa, and the mongoose in Madagascar. When Pimm is lured from one prestigious school to another -- as he was this year when he left the University of Tennessee to become a professor of conservation biology at Columbia University -- his entourage and projects go with him.

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."

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.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Mike Clary