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A mature Bald Eagle pauses after it ate a fish as a gulls keep their distance in the foreground at the Great Salt Lake Nature Center at Farmington Bay, Saturday, February 9, 2013.

Robert Hasen -yager has never lost the sense of wonder and appreciation he felt as a young man enthralled with nature.

He kindled that sensitivity growing up amid the swamps, rivers and cornfields of Illinois, and further honed it during a summer building fences and trails for the U.S. Forest Service in Kanosh, which made him fall in love with Utah. He kept it intact during graduate school at Utah State University and then during a 34-year career with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR). Hasenyager's passion fired efforts to help found a nonprofit dedicated to helping Utah's at-risk native wildlife and to establish an educational nature center on the edges of the Great Salt Lake.

On Saturday, Utah officials renamed the facility the Robert N. Hasenyager Great Salt Lake Nature Center in honor of the wildlife advocate's many years of service to preserve and educate people about the state's nongame native species. The honor comes as Hasenyager, 60, battles cancer.

Although many people have big dreams and hope to do something that impacts the future, Hasenyager pulled it off, said Greg Sheehan, DWR director, moments before unveiling a sign bearing the new name.

"I hope we can all dream as big as he has and be successful," said Sheehan, noting creation of the center took "many years and heartbreaks."

For at least one person on hand Saturday, the ceremony brought time full circle.

Courtland Nelson, a former Utah State Parks director and present-day director of Parks and Trails in Minnesota, got to know Hasenyager when both were "dirt poor" graduate students at Utah State University. He recalled their first trip together in Hasenyager's "beat-to-hell" pickup, circumnavigating the Great Salt Lake -- quite a feat back in the 1970s.

Hasen -yager went on to do wildlife research, spending summers in "crappy trails" on public land with wife Marlene as he studied squirrels and bats before becoming a regional director at the Division of Wildlife Resources.

"It's just always been about the out of doors," Nelson said of Hasenyager, before paraphrasing the opening line from Norman Maclean's "A River Runs Through It." "There is no difference between the outdoors and his life and his values."

Hasenyager now serves as executive director of the Utah Wildlife in Need Foundation (UWIN), affiliated with the Utah Wildlife and Conservation Foundation, which has identified 105 native species that are at-risk because their habitat has been destroyed or overrun by nonnative animals. The nonprofit raises funds and leads efforts to aid those species, which, unlike game wildlife, aren't supported by hunting and fishing license fees.

The nonprofit group has restored otters to the Provo River, worked to reduce threats of lead exposure to California Condors, created nesting platforms for Ferruginous hawks and published a children's pocket guide to the state's at-risk wildlife.

The group also raised the funds to build and maintain the nature center, as well as for a boardwalk and the trails around it. Hasenyager even spent a Christmas day at the bay helping build the boardwalk.

The center, which replaced an older mobile learning facility, opened in September 2007; trails were completed in 2008 and 2010.

"It was his vision to see the nature center become a reality out there," said Dean Mitchell, DWR conservation outreach section chief. "He really has a passion for helping the public understand the complexities of wildlife management. He envisioned this nature center as a way to be able to do that."

The center, adjacent to DWR's Farmington Bay Water -fowl Management Area, allows visitors to learn about and view some of the more than 200 bird species that visit the bay annually. Those species include great blue herons, bald eagles and double-crested cormorants. Each year as many as 5,000 schoolchildren explore the center, which also draws an equal number of bird and nature enthusiasts.

"It is a marvelous way for kids to get exposure to wetlands and [the] out-of-doors," said Steve Swindle, chairman of the Utah Wildlife and Conservation Foundation.

In an interview, Swindle said Hasenyager has been "one of life's really, really wonderful human beings. He is ambitious, he is optimistic, there couldn't be a person with higher integrity than Bob. He works hard, he implements ideas."

In his tribute on Saturday, Swindle called Hasenyager the "spark plug" for the project.

"You were not just a person of words, you were a person of deeds in getting things done," Swindle said. "We wouldn't be here today and this center wouldn't be here today without your efforts."

Hasenyager accepted the honor humbly.

"None of us take on a project like this for the accolades," he told his friends and admirers. "We take on projects like this because there's a need."

He said he saw more "elbows and backsides" than faces during the weeks and months spent building the nature trails. The workload was shared, Hasenyager said, and his participation couldn't have happened without support of his wife and children. It is really a "we" that deserves the accolades, he said.

"From my heart, I express my sincere appreciation that this center will be a place where people of all ages can come, young and old," Hasen -yager said as he hoisted 19-month-old grandson Braxton into his arms, "and learn about wildlife, how special it is."

brooke@sltrib.com Twitter: @Brooke4Trib

Visit the center

Where » 1700 W. Glovers Lane (925 South), Farmington

Hours » 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays and some Saturdays; closed Sundays

Admission » Free