Paris Swanigan, of Louisville, fishes Tuesday morning at the Noxubee Wildlife Refuge. Swanigan, who has been coming to the refuge for many years, said people tend to pick up after themselves while at the park. Photo by: Alex Holloway/Dispatch Staff
Volunteers, such as this one pictured, have chipped in to help keep the Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee Wildlife Refuge clean during a partial federal shutdown. The refuge is still open during the shutdown but largely unstaffed.
Photo by: Courtesy photo/Lana Taylor
Elbert Cotton, of Macon, fishes on Tuesday at the Noxubee Wildlife Refuge. Cotton was one of several visitors at the park, despite a partial federal shutdown that's left it unstaffed.
Photo by: Alex Holloway/Dispatch Staff
January 9, 2019 10:31:21 AM
Lana Taylor visits the Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee Wildlife Refuge about once a week.
Taylor enjoys wildlife photography, but she took a picture of a different scene when she visited the refuge on Sunday morning. She saw a group of young adults, in two kayaks, picking up litter in the early morning hours. She briefly talked to the volunteers before snapping their picture.
"It was freezing that day," Taylor said. "They were there right after daylight and it was about 37 degrees. They were picking up litter in their kayaks. That was the only way to really get to it. They had two garbage bags that were pretty full."
As a partial federal government shutdown stretches to its 20th day -- threatening soon to become the longest in the United States' history -- garbage is piling up in national parks across the country. Yet at the Noxubee Wildlife Refuge, which remains open but virtually unstaffed, conditions remain as pristine as usual.
That's thanks, in part, to volunteers like the ones Taylor saw Sunday morning taking the initiative to pick up litter from around the park.
Kara Roberts, president of the Friends of the Noxubee Refuge, said the group hasn't taken any coordinated action to clean up the refuge as the federal shutdown persists. However, she said board members pitch in individually and are aware of several other citizens helping out of their own volition.
"We have lots of great student volunteers and apparently, they show up on their own to clean up around the area," Roberts said. "A lot of the refuge board members that regularly visit the refuge carry trash bags in their cars so that we can pick up trash as we see it."
Taylor said she's been impressed to see the volunteers taking action.
"I think in hard times, or times when things are going on like in the government shutdown, it's so refreshing to see volunteers picking up some slack -- especially young people," she said.
If the shutdown continues, the Friends may start coordinating more organized efforts.
"We're waiting to see what happens," Roberts said. "If it continues on, we'll have to find somewhere else to meet for next month and see what comes up."
'They've always been really nice'
Noxubee Wildlife Refuge Director Steve Reagan, who is one of three employees, along with a law enforcement officer and a fire control officer, who are working at the refuge while not being paid due to the shutdown, said it's no surprise to see the community stepping in to help.
"They've always been really nice that way," Reagan said. "The community really sees us as a member of the community, so in the downtime for us, they're really chipping in and filling in where they can."
While volunteers certainly play a role in the shutdown, so too do the park's regular visitors who pick up after themselves.
Elbert Cotton, who was fishing at the Refuge on Tuesday morning, said he always tries to leave his fishing spots clean.
"I think everybody picks up after themselves," Cotton said. "I know I do. I bring a bucket and I put everything in it and take it with me."
Paris Swanigan, another fisherman who was at the refuge Tuesday, said the refuge's strict enforcement on littering has helped cultivate a willingness in visitors to pick up garbage.
"Usually around here they don't throw trash out too much," he said. "It's never really been too bad here because they'll catch you. In other places, where there ain't many people around, like the Natchez Trace, people will throw stuff out."
Eugene Shelton, a third fisherman, said he'll pick up trash -- his own and other trash that was already there -- and take it with him when he leaves the park.
Reagan said the shutdown hasn't been too bad for the refuge yet, especially since it began during the holidays and recent heavy rains have kept visitor traffic low.
But the longer it goes, the more it will hurt, he said.
Nine refuge employees are furloughed. Reagan said there's also increasing concern about how the refuge, which is having to operate as if it has no funding at all, will pay its electric and water bills.
"If they turned off the power right now to the visitor center, it wouldn't be the end of the world -- we're not using it anyway and we'd get it turned on somehow," he said. "But we actually have resident volunteers who have been working for us who aren't working now, of course, due to the shutdown. We actually have employees who live on the refuge too. We have families with small kids and we're trying to make sure that they at least stay comfortable and safe."
A failure to pay the refuge's electric bill would also essentially eliminate Reagan's ability to use the water control gates on a dam at Bluff Lake.
While Reagan and the officers check to make sure the park is safe for visitors, he said they're restricted to only addressing big safety concerns. As the shutdown drags on, he said there's a chance that more and more minor issues, including vandalism, will pile up.
"Some of it's breaking stuff," he said. "Like during the last shutdown, we had ATVs and trailers stolen. We had real theft. You have to remember 99.9 percent of folks are great, but that .1 percent can cause you havoc."
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