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Toni Westland talks ‘Ding’ Days and new renovations underway

By Staff | Sep 21, 2016

Toni Westland demonstrates how the refuge’s iNature Trail puts to work QR-code technology for conservation education purposes. PHOTO PROVIDED

Toni Westland, supervisory refuge ranger at J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge has always been one of the boys.

Westland comes from an Italian family and she was her father’s last hope and chance for a boy; she has two older sisters.

“I became the boy of the family,” Westland said. “Hunting, fishing, I grew up doing all of that, it kind of fit with my name. I always knew I never wanted to be inside. Going outside and exploring was really where I loved to be.”

With that being said, Westland earned a degree in natural resource management with an emphasis in environmental education and interpretation at University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point.

Her first park ranger job was in Iowa at Lock and Dam No. 15 on the Mississippi River where she eventually met her husband. Shortly after they met, Westland and her husband both decided to work their way south.

Toni with kids on the Indigo Trail. PHOTO PROVIDED

She ended up accepting a park ranger position in Lake Lanier which is located in the northern part of Georgia.

“You take your park ranger jobs as you can,” Westland said.

After working in Okeechobee after her stint in Georgia, she finally landed at J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge in 2002.

Westland visited “Ding” Darling in the past and always had a gut feeling that the refuge is where she would wind up one day and she was right.

“This is my niche. This is where I’m supposed to be,” she said.

Toni Westland with a Youth Fishing Day participant at the refuge’s Tarpon Bay Recreation Area. PHOTO PROVIDED

Westland started out as an education ranger before moving up the ladder to a supervisory refuge ranger.

“I did education for eight years and really ramped up their education program, I did the Duck Stamp program as well. I taught everywhere. It was before kids so it was easy and flexible and I could be everywhere at every time,” she said.

Part of Westland’s job is keeping things new and fresh. She is in charge of all their social media, Instagram, website and exhibits. It was Westland who incorporated their manatee, crocodile and sea turtle exhibits.

“I love this place like no other. I’m here for the duration. I plan to run visitor services for as long as I can,” she said.

Westland has some pretty exciting projects in the works. The downstairs of “Ding” Darling is under renovation, the bathrooms are getting a full makeover and new kiosks at Gulf City Park and Bailey Tract are underway.

The new kiosk at Gulf City Park will be unveiled next summer and will discuss Dr. Perry, a woman eye doctor who donated Perry Tract, sea turtles, birds and other wildlife. It will be the first federal kiosk on city land on Sanibel.

At Bailey Tract, there will be two new kiosks that will feature 16 full panels. She has an intern who is helping her put together information for the signs.

“I think more and more people are finding out about it (Bailey Tract). It feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere there,” Westland said.

This year’s “Ding” Days which Westland and a committee put together, will focus on birds due to the centennial anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty.

“We’ve been protecting birds for 100 years and really, that’s a good thing to celebrate. We wouldn’t have a lot of these birds if we hadn’t started doing that,” she said.

One of the events Westland is anticipating for “Ding” Days, which begins in October, is a presentation on the plume trade which will be headed by Steven Noll, a professor from the University of Florida. She is also looking forward to birding movies and meeting the winners of the Duck Stamp contest Oct. 22 which is considered Conservation Art Day at “Ding.”

“I love art day because Ding would appreciate it. I think he would be proud,” Westland said. “By people coming and learning and getting excited, they become conservationists and stewards of the environment. “