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Instant impact with government shutdown: ‘Ding’ Darling closed to visitors until further notice

By Staff | Oct 1, 2013

The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge and other federally-funded organizations on Sanibel Island are closed until further notice.

The last federal government shutdowns were in 1995 for a period of six and 21 days, respectively. And like a sequel nearly two decades in the making, Congress announced a new shutdown effective Oct. 1, until lawmakers can sort out differences on debt and the Affordable Care Act, which also went into effect this week.

According to the Associated Press, national parks and refuges will be closed, disability claims made by veterans will have to wait, routine food inspections by the Food and Drug Administration will be suspended, Department of Defense employees will be furloughed, and WIC supplemental services temporarily shut down, to name a few of the frozen services.

The effect of the shutdown is expected to ripple across the country and into small communities including Sanibel Island.

The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge announced it was closed until further notice on Oct. 1. “Ding” Darling and 562 other national wildlife refuges all closed today, as well as national parks across the country.

“The refuge is closed because of the government shutdown, until Congress decides to get to work and play nice,” said Birgie Vertesch, executive director of the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society-Friends of the Refuge. “It could be a day or it could be weeks. I encourage people that if they don’t like it to call their elected officials.”

Closing of the refuge includes the Visitor/Education Center, Indigo Trail, Bailey Tract and Wildlife Drive, which was scheduled for an Oct. 1 ribbon cutting after repaving and the installation of new water control structures.

More than 700,000 people visit the refuge each year from all over the world and shutting it down on the cusp of a new season may slow the local economy. Hotels, restaurants, and other businesses geared towards tourists may suffer if the refuge stays closed for too long.

The AP reported that the shutdown could slow the national economy’s annual growth rate in the October-December quarter by up to 0.9 percent, meaning an overall growth of 1.6 percent rather than 2.5 percent as projected.

The Tarpon Bay Explorers, “Ding” Darling’s official concessions business, had to close its doors as well. Legally, they aren’t allowed to operate on federal property when the refuge isn’t open to the public.

Wendy Schnapp, owner of Tarpon Bay Explorers, said there are a total of 35 employees who work throughout the year, but 20-25 will be asked to stay home until the government is back up and running.

“It’s certainly a huge economic impact to our business and staff,” she said. “We are all hoping this is going to be hours rather than weeks.”

Some businesses and organizations affected by the shutdown are able to continue operating at different locations. The Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation, for instance, announced that “due to the government shutdown the Marine Laboratory building, located on Ding Darling National Wildlife property, will be closed. We will be working out of the other SCCF buildings until the shutdown is over.”

Schnapp said the Tarpon Bay Explorers don’t have that option, so they have to wait until everything is sorted out in Congress.

The “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society-Friends of the Refuge are working out of temporary office space because they are a non-profit entity that is separate from the federal system, said Vertesch.

“Friends can do business as usual, we just can’t work out of our offices,” she said. “We aren’t allowed to communicate with any refuge or federal employee that has been furloughed, by law.”

The only federal employee who can legally communicate with the wildlife society is Refuge Manager Paul Tritaik. Twenty employees at the refuge are being furloughed until the government is back on track.

Sanibel City Manager Judith Zimomra said there are no federal programs through the city that will be affected, but if the shutdown is long term there may be a disruption in services that are coordinated with federal authorities.