NPWS ranger recognised in Queen’s Birthday Honours

This week Adelaide International Bird Sanctuary (AIBS) - Winaityinaityi Pangkara Senior Ranger Erik Dahl was recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List with a Public Service Medal for outstanding public service to natural and cultural heritage preservation and conservation in South Australia, including supporting the establishment of Innamincka Regional Reserve, establishing the ‘Bounceback’ landscape scale conservation initiative in the northern Flinders Rangers, and fostering productive relationships with Aboriginal communities, pastoralists, mining companies, conservation and volunteer organisations.

Adelaide International Bird Sanctuary Senior Ranger Erik Dahl

More broadly, Erik’s contribution spans threatened species and conservation program delivery, fire prevention and response, removal of feral pests, installation and management of assets and infrastructure, engaging with and educating park visitors, working with industry, volunteer and interest groups, and undertaking required compliance and enforcement activity.

He has also supervised, trained and mentored many rangers and he is highly respected by those who have served with him. He has also volunteered as a member of numerous Landscape Groups, Friends Groups and Tourism Groups.

Erik has worked for DEW for the past 43 years, but he laughingly states his work with the department started much earlier, when he began volunteering with former Kangaroo Island ranger George Lonzar and his wife Joyce, after meeting them during a family holiday to the region. He was only six.

Under the watchful eyes of the Lonzars, he helped with koala surveys, counting echidnas and platypus and helping to feed the then rare cape barren geese.

He also credits his mother Barbara Le Cornu with his interest in ecology and the environment, saying she was an adventurous soul, who was a keen bushwalker and hitchhiker, who grew up in Yorketown on the Yorke Peninsula, before travelling throughout Australia and Europe, settling in Norway, where Erik was born, before returning to the Adelaide suburbs when Erik was two-and-a-half.

Erik always had an interest in nature, and commenced his employment with the National Parks and Wildlife Service as a greenkeeper in the Belair National Park in April 1976. His service and enduring commitment to the department is only broken by two years, which he took as unpaid leave to study an Associate Diploma in Parks and Wildlife at the Salisbury College of Advanced Education, continuing to work for DEW during his college holidays.

It was here that Erik was taught by two ‘very influential’ lecturers, the late Lynn Brake and Joan Gibbs.

‘Lynn got us thinking about visitors to parks and how to get them to think about nature, I learnt a lot from Joan on ecological processes and still do, as she’s a member of the AIBS Friends Group,’ Erik said.

‘Two other important mentors, among many, include Graham Cooper, who I worked with at the fauna unit at Para Wirra Conservation Park, and John Watkins, who managed the far north region, he knew how to work with people.’

His diploma complete, Erik returned to work at DEW. He has worked across a vast expanse of South Australia, from metro parks to Witjira National Park on the Northern Territory border, to Danggali Conservation Park, near Renmark, Innamincka Regional Reserve, and many more places.

Erik is currently the Senior Ranger charged with operational responsibility for the new AIBS.

Erik said the sanctuary was a very special place encompassing over 60 kilometres of coastline north of Adelaide, adjacent to Gulf St Vincent at the southern end of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF), one of the key feeding and roosting sites for migratory birds. The area acts as a crucial habitat on this migratory route which is used by more than 5 million birds a year.

‘One of the first, great conservation projects I worked on, along with many others, were fencing mound springs on the Oodnadatta Track,’ Erik says.

‘These fringe the Lake Eyre Basin, and had been devastated by cattle.

‘We had a little Ford tractor with a posthole digger on the back and we had great trouble getting posts into the limestone, until Steve Kowalick arrived with a team of workers and a jackhammer.

‘Once fencing was complete it only took a couple of years for these pools to turn from malodorous pugged holes into beautiful flowing springs.

‘There is biota in these pools that is unique and only found here, nowhere else in the world, so these places are so important and helped found a real passion in me for conservation work.’

Bounceback was another key project, helping to control predators and pests which were impacting on native flora and fauna populations in the Northern Flinders Rangers, such as the yellow-footed rock wallaby, which in some gorges had declined to as few as 6-12 animals.

Another conservation project Erik worked on was at Para Wirra and Kaiserstuhl Conservation Park, managing grazing pressure so that vegetation was able to re-emerge and thrive.

‘The vegetation has changed markedly with the Friends group tackling the weeds and being replaced with casuarinas, heaths, peas and native pines. It’s a very changed landscape,” he said.

‘To be able to go and see the changes there, and see how different it now is, is really wonderful.’

Another memorable project undertaken in the north of the state was marking tracks in the Innamincka Regional Reserve.

‘We hammered in thousands of coloured posts, which were marked with a diamond, a three-letter code for the track number, and the distance,’ Erik said.

‘At the same time we wrote notes for all the tracks and what visitors were likely to see. I also worked with the maps branch in Adelaide and helped to write the desert parks handbook.

‘We were also out patrolling the park, which used to attract a lot of four wheel driving and hunters. Once Ian Falkenberg and I came across a group of duck hunters who had a duck plucking machine, a freezer full of ducks that they’d shot on Strzelecki Creek and quite a few guns. We confiscated the ducks, and their guns. I was so pleased when the mandatory gun buyback scheme rolled out when semi-automatic rifles were removed, they scared me.

‘It was not always easy but we managed to begin changing the clientele, and the area instead became increasingly popular with families and grey nomads.’

While at Witjira, Erik experienced the isolation of being ‘rained in’, after more than four-inches (about 100 millimetres) of rain fell in less than 24-hours. With floodwaters lapping at the small ‘island’ left around them, they were unable to travel to the nearest town of Oodnadatta for two weeks.

‘We had run out of food when one of the horses, which had been rounded up in the days before the flood, broke a leg in the yards,’ Erik said.

‘The radio had been destroyed by lightning and the horse gave us a day or two more of food, and then we were able to make it out to Oodnadatta for supplies.

‘On the drive out to Oodnadatta I ran into a young Aboriginal workmate, who had left Witjira before me, become bogged and left his vehicle and a passenger to walk to the closest property, Hamilton Station, for help.

‘With no food supplies I decided I had to head to Oodnadatta before returning to rescue the passenger.

‘Calling past Hamilton Station on the return journey, I was surprised to see the car’s passenger, Clancy, had managed to walk the more than 75-kilometres to the station in less than 48 hours.

‘It was an amazing feat, especially as Clancy was an old man.’

Through his work Erik has built and maintained productive relationships with Aboriginal communities, pastoralists, mining companies, conservation and volunteer organisations, and has acted as a mediator between stakeholders and interest groups to facilitate positive outcomes.

Erik says his advice for anyone working in the field is to ‘make sure you take it with you’ and pack all the supplies and tools you may possibly need.

‘When it comes to working with people it’s important to be empathetic and conciliatory,’ he said.

‘Try and find a compromise and listen to people before coming to a solution.’

Erik says working in so many locations has been hard on his family, but he is very proud of his three sons, Anton, Hugo and Stefan.

And it’s likely Stefan may just become the next to step into his father’s footsteps, as he is currently studying evolutionary biology at university.