Wharton: Bird refuge is thriving and alive with song

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Things looked bleak for the Bear River Bird Refuge when Al Trout became manager in August 1989.

A half-decade of Great Salt Lake flooding had left one of the oldest refuges in the federal system devastated. Saltwater had invaded fresh. Dikes and water control structures were destroyed. Refuge headquarters laid in rubble.

"It seemed like a total disaster," said Trout, a rail-thin man with a short-cropped beard. "The landscape was bare. . . . The part that was so devastating was that the infrastructure was damaged. The buildings were destroyed and the operation of the refuge had ceased. The equipment, staff and things that support management were gone. I was alone."

Trout expected funds to fix the refuge. A week after he arrived for his U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service post, working from a windowless 13-by-13-foot office in a Brigham City warehouse, he learned the money had been cut.

Then Bob Ebeling, a retired engineer from nearby Thiokol, appeared on a Friday asking for work as a volunteer.

Trout was skeptical. He had worked in North and South Dakota and Nebraska at refuges in the middle of farming communities where the press, residents and farmers wanted little to do with him or wildlife.

With nothing to lose, he accepted Ebeling's offer. The two set a goal of having the refuge open and partially operating by 1990. Given the lack of budget, that seemed impossible.

Ebeling quickly rallied the community. Whitaker Construction donated equipment and manpower. Anderson Lumber gave supplies. Ducks Unlimited contributed badly needed cash. The Box Elder Wildlife Federation collected donations. Another company offered shop space where volunteers fabricated structures needed to begin controlling the freshwater.

On July 4, 1990, the refuge opened again. Brigham City - a town that celebrates the refuge with a sign that spans its Main Street - had rallied.

But there was more to this dream, including a state-of-the-art visitor center off Interstate 15. There was more help to come.

Then-Utah Congressman Jim Hansen, who had hunted ducks at Bear River, held power as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

Bob Valentine, a Brigham City resident, member of Ducks Unlimited and then-director of the Division of Wildlife Resources, brought state and local support.

Steve Denkers, a member of the Willard Eccles Foundation and an avid duck hunter, helped raise private funds.

And John Peters, a Fish and Wildlife Service contracting specialist in the final year of his career, had just the right amount of experience and skills to maintain the visitor center construction schedule and tight budget. He was so committed he bought the flag pole when there was no money left.

Now, just a few weeks away from his May 3 retirement, Trout sits in the office of a state-of-the-art $7.7 million visitor center and refuge headquarters.

Asked about his favorite part of the new facility, Trout does not hesitate.

"The window overlooking the marsh in the exhibit hall," he answers. "It is a window to the marsh. I feel like I have come full circle. I started out wanting to work in the field of wildlife because of my sense of wonder and awe in the outdoors. You spend 35 years in the agency, being hands on and working your way up, and the love and motivation still is that wildlife and habitat needs to survive. That is the engine that drives the train. I go out to that window and it takes me back. I am 15 years old again."

The refuge, too, has come full circle, and is once again alive with the sounds of honking geese, killdeer calls and chattering red-winged blackbirds, all helped by a refuge manager and a community that understood its value.


Contact Tom Wharton at wharton@sltrib.com or 801-257-8909. Send comments to livingeditor@sltrib.com.