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10 December, 2020

The life of Queensland Outback ranger Sarah Jess

What I love most about living and working in Outback Queensland is being part of a broader community; being a spoke in a really big wheel.


I moved to Charters Towers seven years ago to take up the position of Senior Ranger for an area we call Savanna. Savanna is a big patch of country: from Aramac in the south to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north; the Northern Territory border to the west and the Burdekin River to the east. My team of 18 rangers take care of more than 600,000 hectares including a world heritage area, 12 national parks, seven resource reserves and one timber reserve.

What I love most about living and working in Outback Queensland is being part of a broader community; being a spoke in a really big wheel.

Whether you’re a grazier, a publican, a retailer, a tour operator or a park ranger, we share many of the same adversities and challenges. We all care for the country we live and work on so we’re all in it together. I admire and respect the tenacity and resilience of the communities and people out here to thrive in hardship.

I think all land managers would agree that we can’t achieve long term land management goals in isolation. Dealing with an issue like invasive weeds on your own property might work in the short-term but in the long-term you will lose the battle. We’ve learnt there’s a need for us to work with our neighbours with a commitment to each do our bit.

An example is how we work with the neighbours of Boodjamulla National Park. It’s a huge park – 380,000 hectares. Feral horses and feral cattle are a pest for the park and a problem for our neighbours because they draw in domestic cattle from the neighbouring properties, making their cattle harder to muster and retrieve. We have had lots of support from neighbours of Boodjamulla to remove the feral stock, and that is leading to improved conservation and grazing outcomes. It’s been a great partnership that has continued for many years.

People often ask me what it’s like to be a ranger. I tell them it’s the best job in the world. But when I explain what I do on a day to day basis, they often seem surprised. People think my job involves cuddling koalas, sorting out flying fox issues and removing possums from people’s roofs. It’s a fair enough perception; after all, the Herbert River ringtail possum is our emblem.

But being a park ranger in the Outback is very different to that. Rangers in the Outback have this ‘can do’ attitude where nothing is too hard or can’t be done. The broad range of skills we need to do the job are nearly as diverse as the country we look after. I have to spread myself across the Savanna area, but the rangers on the ground develop an incredible understanding of the intricacies where they work, including by engaging with Traditional Owners.

While we are primarily land managers - tackling environmental threats like weeds, feral animals and fire - we are also jacks of all trades turning our hands to carpentry, plumbing and mechanics as needs arise. The work often involves extended or odd hours working in the heat or avoiding frosts in the cold. While we plan our work well in advance, our plans can be upended to respond to emergent issues, or to help others in need, so an ability to be flexible and adapt is essential. We spend a lot of time in canvas bags under the big sky.

Many people think Outback landscapes just take care of themselves when in fact to keep these landscapes healthy, we need boots on the ground actively managing threats such as destructive fire, ferals and weeds. When we’re on country, we’re working to reduce impacts of feral animals and invasive weeds on park values. We manage feral cattle, horses and pigs by working with neighbours and Traditional Owners to maintain or improve fencing or undertaking mustering or lethal control. We work really hard to keep rubber vine, parkinsonia and prickly acacia from invading and taking over parks. It’s work that needs good partnerships, and Indigenous Land and Sea Rangers and neighbours on adjacent properties are essential to our success.

Sometimes tackling weeds and ferals can feel overwhelming. For example if you get a really serious infestation of prickly acacia, the first tree can feel like there’s a journey of a thousand miles ahead. But if you get ten people attacking the weed consistently for a couple of weeks, it starts to feel like we can get on top of it. That’s what we do in national parks - get a squad together to do an initial big hit then keep on top of it with follow up work. I’d really like to see more resources available for community members and graziers to tackle environmental threats. Graziers who are working hard to keep cattle alive at this time of year need extra people to take on land management work like tackling prickly acacia.

We undertake planned early burning as our highest priority across the majority of our estate. It’s been challenging in recent years with the drought and extended hot weather. We use a combination of ground burning and aerial incendiary ignition to create the patchwork effect reminiscent of traditional burning practices.

We also maintain and repair a range of park infrastructure including historic shearing sheds and homesteads, remote ranger bases, camping and visitor facilities, power, water and sewerage systems, boundary fences, tracks and firebreaks. Rangers working in the outback are often first responders in medical emergencies and lives have been saved as a result of our training, knowledge and swift action. We assist with response and recovery following cyclones, floods and wildfires providing much needed support and resources. That’s our commitment to the community.

Why do we do it? Because we love what we do and our Outback parks are special places that need looking after. I’m proud to look after all the diverse landscapes: the emerald green waters of a sandstone gorge; rolling mudstone hills dotted with spinifex clumps; quiet Mitchell grasslands rustling with the activity of birds; old pastoral relics that whisper stories of bygone days; spectacular gorges that harbour deep cultural connections; and empty dusty roads that go on and on. Oh yeah and there’s the flies and dust.

I’m grateful to work with so many good people to look after each other and the land. And I’m proud to be an Outback ranger.

This article was contributed by and published in support of the Our Living Outback project. More information at www.outbackqueensland.org.au.


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