Leaving an environmental hot seat

Published April 19, 1999|Updated Sept. 29, 2005

Always polite and loyal amid Florida's hard-fought environmental battles, Estus Whitfield, a longtime adviser to governors, is retiring.

During 30 years of Florida environmental battles, from the Everglades to Escambia Bay, there was always a point in the strategy sessions when someone asked the question: "Have you talked to Estus?"

You had to talk to Estus Whitfield to find out what the governor was thinking. That would be Gov. Reubin Askew. Or Gov. Bob Graham. Or Gov. Bob Martinez. Or Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Whitfield was an environmental policy adviser to all of them. Now, the courtly man with the ready smile is retiring, taking three decades of insider scoop with him.

"I wasn't ousted. I'm in good graces. It's just my time," the 56-year-old Whitfield said recently. "I've had my mind on retirement for about three years now."

Allison DeFoor, the former Monroe County sheriff and Florida Keys activist whom Gov. Jeb Bush appointed to be "Everglades czar," will take over Whitfield's job. Whitfield will try his hand at consulting.

In a political town like Tallahassee, Whitfield's longevity in the governor's policy office is remarkable. He is always polite amid the shrill rhetoric and intractable positions in Florida's fight-to-the-death environmental battles.

"He is the classic civil servant," said Nathaniel Reed, a former U.S. Interior undersecretary and longtime Florida conservationist. "He leaves the politics to the politicians, and he's there as "Mr. Facts.' "

Martinez calls Whitfield "a memory bank."

"He knew where things had been tried but didn't work," said Martinez, who depended on Whitfield to help develop Florida's land-conservation program, Preservation 2000, in 1990.

This is how long Whitfield has been around: When he started with the Askew administration in 1971, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had just finished turning the winding Kissimmee River into a straight-sided ditch so it wouldn't flood so much.

As they say, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

In the years afterward, Whitfield was the guy whispering in the governor's ear when the state realized the project was an environmental nightmare and millions had to be spent to put the river back the way it was in the first place.

In the Capitol, almost everybody talks behind everybody's back. But you could hardly ever get Whitfield to breathe a word. Even now, ask him which governor was the best environmentalist, and he'll tell you: Bob Graham. And Bob Martinez. And Lawton Chiles.

"I can't say I ever worked for a governor who didn't care a lot," he sums up.

Appropriately, he grew up in a tiny Panhandle town called Niceville, which has a City Hall letterhead that trumpets the town as "Home of the Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival."

Whitfield knows some great stories. Here's one: Legendary Everglades activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas was speaking at a conference, and, as usual, she was blasting the Army Corps of Engineers for messing up nature. An Army Corps colonel in charge of Florida was sitting at the head table, near the podium, when he dropped his pen. He leaned under the table to fetch it.

Whitfield remembers what Stoneman Douglas said next:"Colonel! You can crawl under that table and hide, but you can't get away from me!"

"When I came on with the state, we were still in the heavy-duty dredge-and-fill era, basically draining the state and trying to make dry land out of wetlands," Whitfield said. "The big difference in what you see today in our experience in the environment, compared to the 1970s _ it's like two different centuries almost."

He says he learned early on to stay out of the spotlight and "stay true to several principles: What's best for the state of Florida and the environment? And I'm always loyal to any person I work for."

Clay Henderson, executive director of the Florida Audubon Society, says that loyalty has put Whitfield in some tough spots over the years.

"There were some times that you knew he was having to carry the bad news," Henderson said. "Anybody that's been in government that long has been yanked by a lot of different interests, but Estus has been able to hold on to his integrity."

Said Reed: "'One of the greatest things about Estus is that he truly believes that we can save this wretched state. Some of us have stopped believing that. Estus seems to wake up every day and get out of bed and say, "Another day to do something wonderful for the state of Florida.' "

His official retirement date was April Fool's Day. But since then, Whitfield has been roaming the Capitol, keeping up with the Legislature's proposed conservation land-buying program and the latest developments on one of Florida's longest-running environmental sagas: restoration of the Everglades.

So far, Whitfield has just one client: a man who owns a ranch along the Kissimmee River, with land the state might want to condemn.