Improvements at ‘Ding’ Darling NWR include new signage, ramps, displays
A number of major renovations have recently been completed at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, but many more improvements and changes are on the way.
“We are all about customer service,” said Toni Westland, Supervisory Refuge Ranger. “We want people who come here to feel welcome, and we’re making a few changes to do just that.”
One of the first things that visitors to the refuge will see when entering the “Ding” Darling property off of Sanibel Captiva Road, Westland explained, are the signs along the entranceway.
“The first sign you see reads ‘Staff Parking Only.’ That doesn’t sound very welcoming, does it?” asked Westland, who noted that new signage greeting visitors to the refuge — written in four languages — should be designed, approved, fabricated and installed by the end of January 2011.
In addition to the new aluminum and plastic, three-dimensional welcome sign already added at the front of the refuge property, plans are already in the works to reconfigure the parking lot adjacent to the Education Center. Westland explained that the current lot will be rehabilitated, resurfaced and restriped. Handicap parking access will also be improved, with the entire project to be completed before the end of the summer.
However, there will be a couple of new ideas brought to fruition at the refuge in the next couple of months, including a pilot program that will make guests feel more welcome.
“We are going to have greeters stationed in the parking lot area that will assist our guests with directions, information about tours, exhibits and what’s going on every day,” said Westland. “We need to do a better job at orienting people with what there is to see and do here.”
Westland noted that a recent survey revealed that only one-third of visitors to the refuge ever come to the Education Center, with the majority of guests going directly to Wildlife Drive. To that end, the information kiosk at the entrance to the two facility buildings has been repainted, with new maps and brochures added.
Also part of the recent rehabilitation are the ramps leading to the Education Center and administrative offices.
“The old ramps were grey, and were very slippery when they got wet. Rain and flip-flops do work very well together,” Westland added. “Our new ramps are made from a plastic composite material that is brown, and the non-skid grooves almost make them look like real wood.”
According to Westland, the refuge saved a lot of money by completing the work with the assistance of staff members and volunteers from the Panther National Wildlife Refuge in Naples.
“It was a huge project… everybody pitched in,” she said. “We wanted to get this done before season started. Our busiest time of year is the week between Christmas and New Year’s.”
Inside the Education Center, a new manatee display is almost complete. The skeleton of a manatee, which perished due to a boating accident, hangs in the northwest corner of the building. Westland noted that additional information about manatees, including information panels, photographs and the original necropsy report, will soon be included in the display.
“We’ve been on a waiting list for nine years,” Westland said of the manatee skeleton. “When it arrived, we had to put it together like a giant puzzle.”
And, by the end of the winter, the manatee will have a nearby neighbor familiar to many islanders and visitors to Sanibel: “Wilma” the crocodile.
The longtime local reptile, who earlier this year succumbed to a lethal cold snap, will be presented — a whopping 11 feet, 8 inches — in a display sure to attract many of her admirers.
“Her skeleton will be articulated along this wall,” said Westland, pointing to an open space next to the manatee display. “People will be very happy to have her back home on Sanibel.”
In addition, the Calusa Mound Shell Trail, located near Mile Marker 3.5 on Wildlife Drive, has been closed for renovations. The project, funded, by the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society, will include removing invasive exotic plant species along the trail and installing interpretative signage about the Calusa Indians who once inhabited the area.
The trail is expected to reopen this winter.