Guardians of our Nature’s Gifts

Blue Mountains NP, photo Bruce Gall

Dr Graeme L. Worboys AM was a ranger with NSW NPWS (at Kosciuszko and Blue Mountains) & Bruce Gall was also a ranger with NSW NPWS (at Kosciuszko, Ku-ring-gai Chase and Sturt) and with ANPWS (at Kakadu).

This article is the fourth in an 8-part series discussing our nature’s gifts.

We can be very grateful for our rangers, those guardians who protect, restore and manage Australia’s nature’s gifts within our national parks and other protected areas. They are the heart and soul of protected area agencies, being highly qualified, well-trained and philosophically committed to protecting nature’s gifts. They provide the intellectual inspiration that underpins the professional management of our parks and consequently, the larger National Reserve System (NRS), (see Nature NSW Autumn 2022).

Rangers know their parks, hence can respond to threats such as climate change, feral animals and noxious weeds, and inappropriate development proposals. They also advise on facilities and services to enrich a visitor’s park experience, including the paramount issue of safety. Rangers’ familiarity with an area’s geography and fire trails enables them to take leadership roles in fire planning and suppression.

Our uniformed guardians also provide the link between head/regional offices and the parks, playing a key role in communicating policies, procedures and programs to field staff. They also play a compliance role, enforcing laws and regulations, protecting the park from those who would vandalise them and even destroy our nature’s gifts.

The integrity and future of Australia’s NRS is absolutely dependent on a professional and well-resourced ranger force.

Thus, the work of rangers is formidable though not always tangible in terms of developments or artificial constructs that can be associated with other professions. A park that looks healthy with its diverse ecosystems and vibrant native animal populations is testimony to a job well done.

Australia has now had generations of rangers working in its reserves since our first national park was created in 1879, though the nature of that work has evolved. Up to the 1960’s, a ranger’s work was mostly manual: keeping the parks clean, repairing walking tracks and undertaking maintenance. Parks were always well presented and there was great pride in looking after nature’s gifts.

But this housekeeping approach changed as a greater ecological awareness of natural area management developed. Maintenance duties in many parks are now the work of field officers and contractors, while rangers focus on ecologically based solutions to protecting catchments, restoring eroding ecosystems, securing endangered species, and conducting impact assessments. Sophisticated fire management software has been developed and used during catastrophic wildfires while dangerous predators such as feral cats and foxes are controlled using tracker dogs, traps and supporting science. Rangers needed new skills to meet these demands.

The professionalisation of the ranger force was incremental, but relatively rapid. Associate diploma park management qualifications were introduced in the 1970’s as a stand-alone course or as a complementary qualification to tertiary degrees such as forestry, agriculture, geology, botany and zoology. Universities followed with natural resource management courses, tailored to the needs of conservation agencies. University degrees became the minimum qualification for new NSW rangers in the mid 1980’s and soon became a practical minimum requirement for rangers Australia-wide given the competition for these positions.

In 2001, the first Australian park management textbook, Protected Area Management Principles and Practice (Oxford University Press) became available. It was superseded in 2015 by an international textbook, Protected Area Governance and Management published by Australian National University Press and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature [The late Graeme Worboys was the principal editor/writer for both these ground-breaking publications]. In addition to their academic training, rangers had to acquire a diverse range of practical skills including operating fire tankers, boating and diving skills and rappelling from helicopters.

By the 2020’s, master’s degree and post-doctoral ecologists worked in parks conserving nature’s gifts such as endangered species, against increasing threats of climate change, feral predators and vectors of habitat disturbance. The professionalism of the ranger force had come a long way quickly, though many people were ignorant of this transformation. One Western Australian politician recently exclaimed to a highly trained ranger why don’t you get a real job! Clearly, mining Pilbara iron ore was his idea of a real job, not protecting our children’s nature’s gifts inheritance.

Every day, outstanding ranger staff undertake strategic planning, protection and operational tasks Australia-wide. Many of their efforts are above and beyond the call of duty; the following account is just one example.

At the Gosper’s Mountain 2020 fire in the World Heritage Wollemi National Park, Steve Cathcart, a Kosciuszko National Park senior ranger, was deployed to help control the outbreak. On a surveillance helicopter flight over Wollemi, Cathcart saw fires burning within the ancient Wollemi Pine Grove, a natural cathedral of living fossils. Cathcart acted quickly. He was winched from the chopper solo with his daypack to the valley floor. This was not easy as the aircraft was hovering in a narrow, deep canyon. Technically, it was also against the Department’s safety rules but this was an emergency. On the ground, he repaired and started a sprinkler system previously established in the grove. The sprinklers worked but Cathcart also had to physically beat out the fire. Meanwhile burning cliff-top eucalypts were breaking up and crashing to the valley floor near him. Despite the grove being unsafe, his actions and bravery saved the famous pines. It was a courageous effort and critically important for saving this rare world heritage ecosystem.

A ranger’s job is not always this exciting, though often still requires courage. For example, the NSW government has moved to reduce the number of destructive feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park to protect the park’s fragile habitats. Rangers, together with other park staff, in attempting to implement this reduction, have faced a hostile environment of threats and intimidation from those opposed to the government’s decision.

And spare a thought for rangers working in the world’s most dangerous places who daily risk their lives to protect threatened wildlife and wild places from poaching, illegal logging and other threats. The Thin Green Line Foundation ( ), an organisation which supports the dependents of slain rangers, estimates that over 1,000 park guardians have been killed over the past 10 years, many by commercial poachers and armed militia groups.

Today’s guardians of nature’s gifts, our rangers, are a critical investment by governments and private organisations to help maintain the health of our national parks and other protected areas. Their professional competencies and skills have shaped a new age of conservation land management at a time when climate change is threatening the intergenerational protection of our nature’s gifts.

In our next article, we look at those who would harm our precious nature’s gifts.

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