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Times of the Islands Magazine

J.N. Ding Darling reopens after Hurricane Ian

Apr 11, 2023 08:00AM ● By Francesca Block
The J.N. "Ding" Darling Wildlife Refuge is back.

More than six months after Hurricane Ian ripped through Sanibel—uprooting mangroves, disrupting precious wildlife habitats, and wreaking havoc on the island's infrastructure—the community's crown jewel, "Ding" Darling, is showing the world that Sanibel is determined to bounce back. 

The refuge announced its reopening on March 14—exactly 120 years after President Theodore Roosevelt first established the refuge system through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1903. A few weeks later on, Tuesday April 4, hundreds of employees, volunteers and community members gathered and cheered as refuge employees cut the ribbon, signaling the park was back open and ready for business. 

Toni Westland, the Supervisory Refuge Manager, said she was proud to stand with the other businesses and residents of Sanibel Island in celebrating each and every success on the island's road to recovery. 

"We celebrate every milestone of everybody that opens and its super important and that's what makes us the community we are," she said. 
Westland said the restoration process has been long and challenging. Her team's top priority has been focusing on safety, ensuring Wildlife Drive was repaved so cars and bikes could peruse along the refuge's lagoons and mangroves. Her team also worked to clear the hiking and walking trails, including the serene Bailey Tract and the 4-mile Indigo Trail, famed as being a haven for birdwatching.  

At The “Ding” Darling Visitor & Education Center, Westland also created a new informational powerpoint on the damage caused by Hurricane Ian and worked with her team to refurbish the educational center's exhibits focused on the life of the refuge's namesake, the proclaimed conservationist and Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist J.N. "Ding" Darling. 

"The big thing was get people's feet back on the ground, give them normalcy," she said.

While the park is back open, Westland said there is still so much more that needs to be done. But even as she works every day to keep the temporary generators for the visitor center's air conditioning running or makes do with her team's limited equipment, Westland said she's glad to be able to reopen one of the island's most important tourist attractions. 

"We couldn't wait anymore. We were feeling pressure from the community and we wanted to be open. It's just we had to make it as safe as we could," Westland said. 

Westland said the opening of "Ding" represents an important milestone for the island. As an "economic booster" for the community, she hopes the refuge's reopening helps support other local businesses, like Tarpon Bay Explorers and Billy’s Bike Shop

"Every day is better," Westland said. "Every day you hear of other people coming back online, you see progress being made."

Despite the long road still ahead, Westland said she and her team are continuing to develop programming available to all residents and admirers of Sanibel Island, regardless of where they are on their recovery journey. 

For example, Westland's team also worked closely to help reopen programming through Tarpon Bay Explorers, who offer interactive educational tours of the refuge via kayak or tram. The tram services reopened for business on Tuesday, April 11, providing another enhanced educational experience for residents, day trippers and other tourists to enjoy the scenery and uniqueness of "Ding" Darling. 

Also coming up is a special event for Earth Day on April 22 hosted at Lakes Park in Fort Myers. 
Westland said the "conservational carnival" will feature fun games for all, over 30 different exhibition's from the refuge's partners, a dunk tank, a rock climbing wall, food trucks and more. 

"We are not forgetting about staying connected with our community, even off island," Westland said.

Here are the current operating hours for the J.N. "Ding" Darling Wildlife Refuge
  • Wildlife Drive - 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday through Thursday
  • Visitor & Education Center and the Refuge Nature Store - 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday through Thursday
  • Tarpon Bay Explorers - 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday (last rentals at 3 p.m.).