U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipwith paid a rare visit to Comanche County on Friday to issue a double helping of good news for fans of the Great Outdoors.
First, the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge is reopening three of its visitors’ favorite haunts – Charon’s Gardens Wilderness Area, The Narrows area and Doris Campground.
Due to the threat posed by COVID-19, the campground was placed off-limits on March 20. Charon’s Gardens Wilderness Area and the Narrows area were added to the ban on April 9.
This was done to protect the health and safety of visitors, Fish and Wildlife staff and local emergency responders, Skipwith said. The refuge was able to keep portions of its lands open so people could still come out and visit, she noted.
“As I always say, there is no better place to socially distance than your local refuge,” she added.
Refuge Manager David Farmer welcomed a limited number of guests and refuge staff to a socially distanced and fully face-masked ceremony at Sunset Picnic Area so Skipwith could break the good news.
“I would like to thank Director Skipwith for being here today to help us celebrate public access to some of the most popular spots on the refuge,” Farmer said. “I know the visitors will be very happy we are able to restore access and open these areas to their use. The refuge draws visitors from all over the country, and it’s highly valued by our local community.
“It’s a great place to view wildlife, enjoy the outdoors, partake in a variety of recreational opportunities and just experience Mother Nature at her best,” he said, encouraging people to take time to enjoy hiking trails across refuge lands and look for bison, elk, prairie dogs, grass, birds and many other species.
“I will just first say, when we drove up, I could not believe the absolutely amazing backdrop that we have right here at Wichita,” Skipwith said. “I am delighted to be here today to celebrate restoring public access to Doris Campground and the Charon’s Gardens Wilderness Area and the Narrows.
“These locations are popular destination spots on the refuge for local communities and for visitors around this country and the world. The refuge was established by President Theodore Roosevelt for the native species that are in this area, and soon after, we reintroduced our nation’s mammal, the North American bison. Today the refuge has over 750 bison roaming this beautiful landscape.
“This refuge is not only a haven for wildlife but it also welcomes over 2 million visitors a year, making this one of the most visited refuges in our National Wildlife Refuge System. These visitors provide economic benefits for the local community to the tune of $98 million and provide support for over 900 jobs.
“I also am very excited to celebrate Congress passing The Great American Outdoors Act. This bill will permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund. This fund will protect wildlife, protect wildlife habitat and increase recreational opportunities on our public lands, including completing trail networks and expanding fishing and hunting opportunities.
“I will say that it’s also exciting for me to be out here, because these last few months I will say I’m a little tired of being cooped up,” Skipwith said.
Fish and Wildlife followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and state and local health authority recommendations in easing restrictions on refuge lands and welcoming back visitors, she noted.
John Whitney, a Cameron University grad and former Army captain who now serves as field rep for Fourth District Congressman Tom Cole, also highlighted congressional passage of The Great American Outdoors Conservation Act.
It will address nearly $20 billion worth of neglected repairs on the nation’s public lands and national parks. It will create more than 100,000 jobs across the U.S. at a time when they’re needed most, Whitney said.
“Today is a very exciting day,” said Jim Stone, president of the Friends of the Wichitas and a director on the board of the National Wildlife Refuge Association.
“The number of people who really and truly want to get back into the Charon’s Gardens Wilderness Area or want to have the opportunity to camp at Camp Doris is innumerable,” Stone said.
The Friends of the Wichitas has approximately 400 members, and its sole purpose is supporting Farmer and the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge staff. Last year volunteers put in more than 10,000 hours on the refuge, and with the reopening of the three areas they’ll be able to become more active in their volunteering, Stone noted.
Prior to the pandemic, the Friends operated The Nature Store inside the Refuge Visitor Center and turned over all proceeds to the refuge. Unfortunately, the visitor center remains closed in order to protect the health and safety of both visitors and the people who work there.
Interpretive hikes and tours have also been put on hold because of COVID-19. Public restrooms, shower houses, refuge buildings and offices remain closed.
After the ceremony, Farmer and Deputy Refuge Manager Amber Zimmerman held a ribbon across the bridge leading to the Elk Mountain trailhead so that Skipwith could symbolically reopen access to one of the refuge’s most scenic trails.
Doris Campground will reopen with a limited number of sites available. All camping will be by reservation only, through the Recreation.gov website. Guests will be required to camp in RVs, travel trailers or pop-ups with self-contained restrooms. Tent camping will not be allowed at this time. Campsite check-in will be from 3-7 p.m. only.
Refuge personnel urge visitors to do their part when visiting Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge and to follow Center for Disease Control guidance to prevent the spread of infectious diseases by maintaining a safe distance between yourself and other groups; washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth; covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, and most importantly, staying home if you feel sick.
Zimmerman said Fish and Wildlife personnel are still in a telework status. Selected mission-essential workers do come in to work, but it’s on a case-by-case basis and they do take a lot of precautions to address health and safety issues.