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Brigham City • Bob Ebeling has had two careers in his nearly nine decades of life: one spent sending people into space and the other sending them to nature.

It is obvious which one he considers more important.

"I'd never trade one minute spent at the refuge for a million bucks," says Ebeling while sitting at the volunteer desk in the education-visitors center at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. "You appreciate what life has to offer, and Mother Nature is hard to beat. I've gained a lot of knowledge about what is important in life, and it isn't being a millionaire."

Ebeling, 87, knows a thing or two about Mother Nature. Some would say the Brigham City resident is on a first-name basis with her. The Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, after all, was a major factor in his decision to move to Utah and work for Thiokol as a rocket scientist in 1962.

Since then Ebeling has spent countless hours birding, hunting, hiking and boating his beloved refuge. Because of his thousands of hours of volunteer work at the refuge, Ebeling was named the National Wildlife Refuge System Volunteer of the Year for 2012.

The award is presented annually by the National Wildlife Refuge Association and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Ebeling was nominated for the award by former refuge manager and good friend, Al Trout.

"A conservationist and refuge advocate for over 50 years and volunteer for over 22 years, Bob Ebeling played a key role in the restoration of Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge after it was laid to ruins by the flood of the Great Salt Lake in the mid 1980s," Trout wrote in his letter of nomination. "Over the years, Bob has given more than 20,000 hours of time, professional talents and use of personal property. Bear River Refuge and the Refuge System owe Bob a debt that can never be repaid."

After retiring in the mid-1980s from Thiokol, now known as ATK, Ebeling took the "trip of a lifetime" to go birding in New Zealand and Australia with his wife, and dedicated volunteer partner, Darlene Ebeling.

After settling into retirement, he realized he wanted something else to focus on. He originally inquired about serving as a volunteer with Ducks Unlimited, but was told "We really don't do the volunteer thing." He walked into the old refuge offices in Brigham City and informed then-manager Trout he was there to do whatever was needed and without pay.

Ebeling rounded up donations, volunteers and the strength to organize them all in five years of intense on-the-ground projects at the refuge. He set seemingly unrealistic goals for the recovery of the water system damaged in the flood and then made them a reality. Ebeling also helped create a Friends of Bear River Refuge group. Trout said the first 10,000 hours of his volunteer services came in those years. Another 10,000 or so have come while he and Darlene greet visitors to the education center every Friday.

"Bob is our ambassador on so many levels," said current refuge Manager Bob Barrett. "He works so well with the public. We get visitors from more than 30 countries, and he understands the need to explain to all of them why this is such an important place."

For Ebeling it is all about helping and sharing his passion for the feathered friends he has enjoyed from his earliest memories of tagging along with his father, Ado, more than 80 years ago.

"I'm still in love with the birds," Ebeling says. "I love the independence of birds. They do what they want when they want. I have a great pride in talking to youngsters about birds. I tell them 'You can't go wrong with the birds. Look how far I got with them.' "

brettp@sltrib.comTwitter: @BrettPrettyman