As one of Sanibel Island’s most-visited attractions, second only to its beaches, the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge made a big splash with the second-phase reopening of its facilities. The Sanibel Chamber of Commerce helped celebrate the reopening of Wildlife Drive, some of its trails, and the Visitor & Education Center with a ribbon-cutting.
“We all have been waiting for this moment to once again embrace the natural beauty and peace that ‘Ding’ Darling brings to our island existence,” said John Lai, chamber president and CEO. “We recognize the economic importance of the refuge to the islands, so this milestone reflects a major marker for our recovery as a destination, but more importantly, as a community devoted to conservation and sustainability.”
Hurricane Ian destroyed maintenance facilities, trail boardwalks, the ground-level offices of the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society-Friends of the Refuge (DDWS), and the rental equipment inventory at Tarpon Bay Explorers. It downed vegetation and washed out parts of Wildlife Drive and Tarpon Bay building foundations. It slimed trails at Bailey Tract and completely obliterated the interpretative kiosk at Perry Tract, adjacent to Gulf Side City Park. It filled Tarpon Bay and refuge wetlands with tons of debris.
“We are so grateful to the community and the greater refuge system community for coming to our aid for the monumental task of getting the refuge in shape for our wildlife and our visitors,” said Kevin Godsea, “Ding” complex project leader. “We are so grateful to the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society for supporting cleanup and to the chamber of commerce for helping us celebrate our victories now and as we go forward.”
The “Ding” Darling Visitor & Education Center and Refuge Nature Store, Tarpon Bay’s Gift & Nature Store, and Wildlife Drive’s observation tower fared relatively well. Long-term loss of power took its toll, but refuge staff, with a swell of support from the national refuge system and local volunteers, worked hard and steadily to restore habitat, clean up, and rebuild.
On Feb. 1, the refuge was able to reopen Tarpon Bay Explorers with limited hours and services. With the reopening of Wildlife Drive, Bailey Tract trails also open to the public.
The reopening of the visitor center means DDWS will be once again back in business at its Refuge Nature Store. The center will open Saturday through Thursday (closed Friday) 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wildlife Drive is accessible Saturday through Thursday 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Until further notice, some of Indigo Trail, and all o Mangrove Overlook and Calusa Shell Mound Trail remain closed. Wildlife Drive tram tours currently are not running. No opening dates have yet been set for those facilities.
The refuge managed to continue limited free programming even during closure and plans to return to wellness and other programs onsite in weeks to come. It will hold its “Ding” Darling Day Conservation Carnival at Lakes Park on April 22 in conjunction with Earth Day.