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Refuge still accepting comments on possible fee changes

By Staff | May 28, 2019

Supervisory Refuge Ranger Toni Westland

Time is running out for the public to submit feedback on proposed changes to the refuge-specific annual pass, vehicle fee and entrance fee at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

In April, the refuge reported that it was suggesting raising the annual pass from $12 to $25 and the vehicle fee from $5 to $10, while eliminating the $1 entrance fee for hikers and bicyclists. A recreation fee analysis was completed, and the proposed fees mirror nearby recreational facilities and refuges.

Public comments are being accepted through May 31.

Supervisory Refuge Ranger Toni Westland explained that all facilities in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service system were tasked with looking at their recreation fee structures for possible increases.

“Our budgets are less and our lands are more,” she said.

The additional anticipated revenue would enable the Sanibel refuge to better manage the use of its facilities and continue to improve facilities for the public. Typical projects paid for by fee funds include road and facility maintenance, brochure and interpretive material production, and law enforcement.

“All of the monies stay on site and go to enhancements,” Westland said.

When the fee program was established at the refuge in 1987, the entrance fee collected was $3 per vehicle. In 1993, it was increased to $4 per vehicle, then it was raised to $5 per vehicle in 1998.

“It’s been over 20 years since the fees have been proposed to increase,” she said.

As part of the process, public comments must be accepted.

Westland noted that a 30-day window is required, but the refuge opened it up for 60 days.

“We wanted to do more so we doubled it,” she said. “It just gives people time to comment or think about it and get back to use.”

The refuge also hosted two public meetings in April, which drew about 20 people.

“There were a few questions, but they all came knowing it was a public meeting to give their input. We’ve gotten lots of comments from them,” Westland said. “I was happy that people really do support and love their national refuge.”

As for the proposed changes, the annual pass and vehicle fee increases would tie directly into funding improvements and maintenance, but the elimination of the hiker-biker fee is a sort of “green” move.

“Our thinking was to promote less fossil fuels, promote people being green, by getting out of their vehicles,” she said, referring to visitors exploring Wildlife Drive by foot or bicycle instead.

The refuge is proposing to implement the changes on Oct. 1, 2020.

Westland explained that the comments are being reviewed and considered before a final decision is made. Comparing the feedback to what is being proposed, aspects may change or stay the same.

“The proposal then goes to the regional office for review,” she said.

Westland noted that the final proposal could also go up to headquarters for review.

If approved, refuge signage and information in multiple publications would need updating.

“So we’ve got some time to implement,” she said of the tentative 2020 date.

Residents and visitors are encouraged to provide input.

“We’re blessed to manage the lands and keep it safe for wildlife and people, but it’s definitely their public lands,” Westland said. “So now is the time to come forward and submit their feedback.”

For more information or to submit a comment, visit dingdarling@fws.gov or contact Supervisory Refuge Ranger Toni Westland at 239-472-1100 ext. 237 or Toni_Westland@fws.gov.

“They can drop off their comments,” she said. “We have comment cards they can fill out also in the Visitor & Education Center.”

The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is at 1 Wildlife Drive.