J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge
The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge came into existence in 1945 when President Harry S. Truman signed an Executive Order creating it as the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge. It was renamed in 1967 to honor syndicated editorial cartoonist and pioneer conservationist Jay Norwood Darling.
Darling, who signed his cartoons with the nickname “Ding,” began his cartooning career in 1900 in Sioux City and joined the Des Moines Register in 1906 where the nickname was born from the first initial and last three letters of his name.
Darling became alarmed at the loss of wildlife habitat and possible extinction of several species, spawning his wildlife conservation efforts. The avid hunter and angler frequently incorporated conservation messages into his cartoons and the nation became educated.
Darling won Pulitzer Prizes for his cartoons in 1924 and 1942, and was appointed as Director of the U.S. Biological Survey in 1934 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During his 18 months as director of the agency that is now known as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, “Ding” initiated the Federal Duck Stamp Program and designed the first stamp himself. He vastly increased the National Wildlife Refuge System lands and developed partnerships with universities to train scientists in the field of wildlife biology. He also blocked the sale of a parcel of environmentally sensitive Sanibel land to developers.
Since 1934, sales of duck stamps has raised more than $670 million and purchased more than 5.2 million acres of habitat.
The Refuge contains more than 6,400 acres of mangrove forest, submerged seagrass beds, cordgrass marshes and West Indian hardwood hammocks. Some 2,800 acres of the Refuge are designated by Congress as a Wilderness Area.
The Refuge is located in an estuary where salt water and fresh water mix. Estuaries create nutritionally rich habitat for thousands of species of plants and animals, the basis of which in Southwest Florida is mangrove forests and seagrass beds. The forests and grass beds serve as shelter, a nursery and feeding area for many fish species. like mullet, snook, red drum, snapper and other organisms. Healthy seagrass beds are essential to the endangered West Indian manatee and green sea turtles.
Thousands of shorebirds use the Refuge as a resting and feeding place while migrating. Sandpipers, blue herons, roseate spoonbills and egrets call the estuary home as well as the endangered American crocodile.
Today’s visitors have recreational and educational opportunities at the Ding Darling Education Center. The center, opened in 1999, offers interactive exhibits on ecosystems, migratory flyways, Ding Darling’s work, and a hands-on area for children.
Nature photography and bird watching is encouraged anywhere along Wildlife Drive or the hiking trails, but visitors are asked not to approach any wildlife on or near the road.
The most popular attraction is Wildlife Drive, a four-mile, one-way road snaking through the heart of a mangrove forest. More than 800,000 visitors use Wildlife Drive every year. Visitors can walk the drive, use a bicycle, a guided tram or their own vehicle.
Wildlife often can be seen close to the road or trails. Alligators and a resident crocodile frequently bask at the water’s edge with herons and egrets, raccoons and marsh rabbits.
The Refuge vendor, Tarpon Bay Explorers, offers guided kayak and canoe tours, deck talks and stand-up paddle boarding in addition to tram tours of the Refuge.
For more information on the Refuge call (239) 472-1100.
For more information on Tarpon Bay Explorers call (239) 472-8900.