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Great ‘Staycation’ Destinations: National Wildife Refuges

By Staff | Jul 14, 2011

The waterways are filled with a variety of birds, including many of the beautiful roseate spoonbills, at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. It is world renowned for its spectacular migratory bird population.

Staycations are back, thanks to high pump prices and tight family budgets. Luckily, relief from summer boredom is closer than you may imagine, in often-dramatic natural settings: national wildlife refuges. There is a world renowned national wildlife refuge on Sanibel Island.

The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge was created to safeguard and enhance the pristine wildlife habitat of Sanibel, to protect endangered and threatened species, and to provide feeding, nesting and roosting areas for native and migratory birds. It is one of more than 550 refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System and is estimated to be the second most visited refuge in the country. It is also in the top five attractions in Lee County with nearly 800,000 visitors annually from around the world.

“We are finding people enjoy staying close to home,” said Supervisory Refuge Ranger Toni Westland. “We also know people are looking for free educational activities, especially for kids.”

For families, national wildlife refuges are filled with free or low-cost outdoor summer adventures from guided tours to canoe, kayak and bike rentals. “Ding” Darling offers six free summer programs for any age – enjoy the Indigo Trail, a family beach walk or Birding the Refuge. Spark wonder in kids, thrill to a seasonal wildlife spectacle or just enjoy a quiet walk or hike and escape from the daily bustle at “Ding” Darling.

“Our programs are geared towards families,” said Westland, who noted you don’t necessarily need a large family or even small children to enjoy a wildlife refuge.

“Ding” Darling provides habitat for more than 250 species of birds, 51 species of reptiles and amphibians and 32 species of mammals. It can be enjoyed by any person of any age with no or low-cost activities.

Refuges, along with parks and open spaces, are economic drivers for communities and are becoming more so as urban sprawl continues and people become more disconnected from nature and the great outdoors. The average person spends six hours a day in front of a computer or television screen, but research shows being outside and in nature can help in both physical and cognitive thinking skills. Even physicians are beginning to prescribe outdoor play and ecotourism continues to grow.

Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, the National Wildlife Refuge System is the world’s premier system of public lands and waters set aside to conserve America’s fish, wildlife and plants. That was the vision of a political cartoonist with an eye toward conservation. Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling was instrumental in the effort to block the sale of a parcel of environmentally valuable land to developers here on Sanibel. At Darling’s urging President Harry Truman eventually signed an executive order creating Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge in 1945. It has since been renamed in honor of Darling, a pioneer conservationist.

Today, the refuge provides habitat for more than 250 species of birds, 51 species of reptiles and amphibians and 32 species of mammals. It is part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the United States and is world famous for its spectacular migratory bird population. Recreational opportunities and activities for children abound on national wildlife refuges like “Ding” Darling.

Along Wildlife Drive at “Ding” Darling, you will primarily see birds that live in the mangrove estuary. These birds are dependent on the season and tide. Visitors may walk, drive or bicycle their way along the 4-mile-long trail. A tram tour is highly recommended, as it reduces traffic along the drive and gives visitors a chance to learn more about the refuge from a naturalist. For those who are technology-savvy, “Ding” Darling just launched its new iNature Trail using the latest innovation – QR Codes. It is the first and only such trail within the nation’s 55-plus refuges with the interactive technology.

Curious about other out-of-the-ordinary things you can do at national wildlife refuges across the nation? Here are three examples:

• Reserve a “wild ride” to view bison, prairie dogs and other wildlife at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge near Denver.

• Reserve a boat tour to Lighthouse Island on Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina to see two historic lighthouses – plus wading birds and osprey. The $45 tour is only done four times annually.

• Explore Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge by bike. View birds along a 9-mile route and learn about the restoration of the refuge’s salt pond landscape.

To find a refuge near you, use the “Find Your Refuge” feature on the Refuge System homepage at www.fws.gov. See a list of highlighted summer events on refuges across the U.S. Or check the special events’ page accessible from the Refuge System homepage. Listings are in chronological order and updated regularly.

If you are interested in visiting Sanibel’s “Ding” Darling, check out is web site at dingdarling.org. For every $1 spent on a national wildlife refuge, more than $30 is generated in recreational spending in the local economy, according to the 2006 report, Banking On Nature, created by FWS.

With more than 8,000 acres of refuge property under management on Sanibel, plus a mission that includes education and biological research, “Ding” Darling finds that its needs far exceed the annual support available from the government. To support the refuge’s mission in the areas of conservation, wildlife, and habitat protection, community outreach advocacy and public environmental education, the non-profit 503c-3 “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society-Friends of the Refuge was founded in 1982.