God's Eye on the Sparrow

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

Ironically, 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 his 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 canary, or what he calls "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," asks Pimm rhetorically, "how can we save anything?"

Ecologist Stuart Pimm, on another review of his science: "Bring it on"
Mike Clary
Ecologist Stuart Pimm, on another review of his science: "Bring it on"
Birdbander David Okines, in Everglades National Park with student assistant Raquel Marques (above left), is trying to net, measure, and number the world's dwindling population of Cape Sable seaside sparrows
photos by Mike Clary
Birdbander David Okines, in Everglades National Park with student assistant Raquel Marques (above left), is trying to net, measure, and number the world's dwindling population of Cape Sable seaside sparrows

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 citizen, Pimm was born in Derbyshire, England, and still talks in 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 colorized 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 their caring for the Everglades, says Pimm, 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," sniffs Pimm.

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 Eight and a Half Square Mile Area, a sort of West Bank settler squat. Pimm and other environmentalists insist 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 water would threaten those plans.

Indeed the tribe 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. talk," declares Lehtinen. Of the bird itself, 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 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. In between mouthfuls of fried egg and grits, Lehtinen rummages through the papers to buttress the arguments he launches against his foes, whom 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 the reporter with an intensity that invites no response. "They made the bird a plaintiff in a lawsuit! That is so silly."

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