Editor's Note: Since the publication of this piece, the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge has reopened its visitor and education center amidst the continuing government shutdown, which is now in its third week. The refuge said in a press release on Jan. 10 that the 30-day plan is for a scaled-back staff to be paid using entrance fee dollars, not appropriations. If the government shutdown continues past that time, new guidance will be given.
In Florida, hundreds of federal employees have not been able to go to work since a government shutdown took effect on Dec. 22. National parks in the state are being impacted in a variety of ways.
The parking lot of the J.N. Ding Darling National wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island was busy this past Thursday afternoon. The gates were open and some people like Rose McNelis and her friend, Mary Pat Owen, were surprised to see a sign indicating that the visitor and education centers are closed due to the government shutdown.
“This is disappointing because we do like to come and see some of the films they are offering," McNelis said. "And sometimes they have a question and answer, or a hands-on thing, they bring in birds or some kind of animal in and we—"
"We forgot this [refuge] was national,” Owen said, finishing her friend's sentence.
While the education centers are closed, the trails are still open and food vendors and activity providers are still on site. These services are provided by companies that have contracts with the refuge but are not federal employees.
Birgit Miller is the executive director of the Ding Darling Wildlife Society. She says the refuge furloughed nine staff members.
"So there are biology staff, administrative staff, education staff ,there is visitor services staff and none of them can come into work," Miller said.
Miller also said without those essential staff members visitors will not get "invaluable" background information about the refuge. She says water quality will go unmeasured and many endangered species habitats will not be monitored.
"I think long-term impacts are yet to be seen," Miller said. "We're hoping that congress will be able to work together and be able to reopen government, but you just don't know."