The unofficial mayor of Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge is leaving after 19 years.
Jay Banta, known for his long beard, strong opinions and passion for all things wild, is calling it a career this week, exactly to the day he came to the most remote national wildlife refuge in the lower 48 states as its manager.
How far off the beaten track is Fish Springs?
Consider that the only way to reach the refuge is on a dirt road along a path that once served as the route for the Pony Express, the first transcontinental telegraph and the Lincoln Highway. The dirt roads are so bad that Banta always purchased lifetime warranties on tires, shocks and mufflers.
"I made more money off Big O on tires than most people can make in Wendover on a good day," he laughed. "I think they stopped having a lifetime warranty because of me."
Banta and his ex-wife Frances would drive 54 miles to Dugway -- 30 on a dirt road -- to go grocery shopping. When their son Jed and daughter Marsha finished home schooling and began attending West Desert High School, they were 29 miles from the bus stop. From there, they rode another 41 miles to school.
After working at Fish Springs as a seasonal employee in 1981 and 1982, Banta dreamed of coming back to the 17,992-acre oasis in the desert. It was established as a refuge in 1959 to provide habitat for migrating and wintering birds.
"I think some people are possessed by this place," he said. "I was possessed."
This is a land of basin and range where skies are not polluted and stars in the nighttime sky guard an empty landscape. Hunters, birders and intrepid explorers noticing the refuge with its lush 10,000 acres of bird-rich wetlands as a dot on the map that people sometimes come to explore. But while seldom a day went by when Banta didn't see someone, it was also rare to see many. The most he ever saw at one time in 19 years were 150 people for an annual open house and 144 hunters one year on the opening day of the duck season.
"I don't know any place you can see farther than out here," he said. "This is just a place filled with solitude, history and wildlife. It's not the right place for everybody, but it was for me."
Some might think that this man distinguished by a long beard that at times nearly reached his waist might be a hermit or a quiet recluse who didn't like people. Nothing could be further from the truth.
A stop at Fish Springs always meant a lively discussion about politics, wildlife issues or the desert. Banta is an unabashed Democrat. The reason his beard got so long is that, when Democrat Bill Orton was defeated in a re-election bid, the refuge manager refused to shave until Utah elected another Democrat to Congress.
"Given the way Jim [Matheson] has gone lately, I may have to grow it again," he joked.
In a place with no gas stations, grocery stores or tow trucks, Banta rescued more than a few stranded desert explorers, many trying to visit an off-limits nearby hot spring on the Dugway military reservation.
He even served as president of the West Desert High PTA for a time. Since some of the families attending the school were polygamists, one of the big discussions was whether to apply the $10 family pass to attend basketball games paternally or maternally.
"He has always been willing to help," said Delta duck hunter Scott Patton, who got to know Banta well and said the refuge manager had a great influence on the way his son views hunting. "I am sure there have been lots of wayward travelers who have broken down that he has helped. It's a unique place and it takes a unique person to live there and manage it. He is definitely unique. He definitely has his opinions. He won't sit on the fence. I am going to miss him being out there. There will never be another Jay Banta at Fish Springs, that's for sure."
His annual open houses have turned into a highlight for many outdoors enthusiasts.
"Jay sees the beauty that this lonely area provides and somehow has the knack for promoting and instilling its beauty to others," said Terry Sadler, a Salt Lake birder. "He has sponsored and planned a number of refuge celebrations that attract many people. These celebrations offer classes with expert instructors in birding, archaeology, botany and history."
Tom Neuman, a Salt Lake chemist, remembers a time 20 years ago when his son was 8. He had volunteered to look at brine issues at the spring. He took his son to the refuge and the pair hopped into a truck with Banta who looked at a tree near the entrance kiosk and told the visitors to look at the tree swallows. Neuman's son argued the point. He thought they were violet green swallows. Things got tense for a second before Banta looked at a book, smiled, and agreed the boy was right.
"He and my son became instantaneous friends," said Neuman. "Jay was a mentor and wrote letters ... to help get my son in Cornell."
Banta has an excellent reputation as a wildlife manager and biologist.
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources chief waterfowl biologist Tom Aldrich was impressed with the comprehensive refuge management plan Banta put together, the reinstatement of a Canada goose hunt at the refuge and an ultimately failed attempt to bring rare trumpeter swans to the desert refuge.
Banta has fought hard against an attempt by the Southern Nevada Water Authority to pipe underground water from nearby Snake Valley to Las Vegas, a move he fears could end up drying up the refuge's life-giving springs.
He has also seen plenty of strange things in the desert.
Once he walked out of his small office and watched a guy teeing off golf balls into the desert.
"You have a bad golf Jones if you bring your clubs to Fish Springs," he said. "I told him to pick up the balls because every one he found would save himself a $50 fine. He went out and spent 45 minutes looking for golf balls but the kids and my dogs kept finding them."
Another time, a lost juvenile Ross' goose, which usually nests in the Canadian Arctic, showed up and, for much of the year, came out every day to graze on his lawn. He was named Bob.
The retiring manager feels good about Brian Allen, his replacement, because the incoming manager knows a fair bit about being in a lonely place. He spent time working on a tiny 20-acre island on the French Frigate Shoals, halfway between Hawaii and Midway.
Banta has built a new house in Torrey where he plans to retire. He has part-time work lined up, including working as a barista to support his coffee habit. The retired manager wants to become a member of the Wayne County Democrats -- "There are eight of us I think." He hopes to try to feed himself by hunting and growing his own vegetables. And one of the things he is looking forward to the most is being able to buy a daily newspaper.
I haven't got a newspaper in 22 years," he said. "I had duck hunters trained to show up ... and leave me a Salt Lake Tribune ."