Meet alpine Area Chief Ranger Julien Atherstone

Wednesday 11 October, 2023

Fighting bushfires is dangerous, stressful work, but occasionally fires provide moments of surprise that lead to a new conservation initiative. That’s exactly what happened when Area Chief Ranger Julien Atherstone was working with his team during the 2019-20 fires in the Alpine National Park near Mt Selwyn.

“We were backburning as part of the fire campaign and as we lit the backburn, there were Long-footed Potoroos (Potorous longipes) jumping around our feet in an area where we didn't know they existed,” says Julien. 

Long-footed Potoroos are an endangered species, too often becoming lunch for feral cats and foxes.
a long-footed potoroo crouches next to monitoring equipment

The Long-footed Potoroo (Potorous longipes) is an endangered, medium-sized rat-kangaroo. Credit: Parks Victoria

long-footed potoroo stands on hind legs and nibbles the monitoring equipment

This Long-footed Potoroo in the Alpine National Park enjoyed interacting with our monitoring equipment. Credit: Parks Victoria

"There's been a core population of Long-footed Potoroos in the Barry mountains section of the Alpine National Park for a long time. Realising we had Long-footed Potoroos in a much wider landscape expanded our understanding of the environment we work in. That additional information allowed us to apply for funding and set up a monitoring program to look for those animals, find them and implement a fox control program.”

Julien has worked at Parks Victoria for nearly 14 years. For most of that time he has managed part of the Alpine National Park and Mt Buffalo National Park in the Ovens area of north-east Victoria. Having completed a degree in civil engineering and taught outdoor education, Julien’s role at Parks Victoria combines his skills in problem solving with his passion for the outdoors.

“On any particular day, you can be doing anything from talking about endangered pygmy possums to dealing with historic buildings to talking about fox baiting and working with Traditional Owners,” he says.

“It’s a privileged position and the nice thing about national parks is that most people are super passionate about them. People love the fact they're there and what they offer.”

Julien says that along with managing staff and infrastructure, conservation of plants and animals is fundamental to his work.

“For a long time, Mt Buffalo has had pest plant programs, particularly around protected areas such as peatlands. It’s said that 30 per cent of all water in the Murray River comes from peatlands in the alps, so it’s important to keep those sponges of Australia going,” Julien says, referring to the landscape’s role in absorbing water and slowing runoff.


an alpine peatland
A peatland is a type of wetland that contains water-saturated vegetation and semi-decomposed plant material. The Victorian alps is home to about 4,372 hectares of peatlands, the size of about 1,080 MCGs. Credit: Parks Victoria


“Mt Buffalo hasn't had many pest animal programs. The main fauna we were aware of in the area were wombats and lyrebirds [who while hunted by foxes, are not endangered species]. But recently through working in collaboration with DEECA [the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action] and the Taungurung Traditional Owners, we’ve gained data on the whereabouts of Long-footed Potoroos, which is fantastic. It means we've got a reason to start controlling pest animals.”

“We've been doing fox control for a long time in the Alpine National Park broadly, but never at Mt Buffalo. We've now got funding for three years to research the number of foxes at Mt Buffalo, then implement a solid fox control program and see what that does to the population. We'll also be able to monitor other animals like the potoroos and understand where they exist in the landscape.”


Working with Traditional Owners

Working with Traditional Owners as part of joint management is a highlight for Julien. The Victorian alps are a place of high cultural, ecological, and spiritual significance – a living landscape connected to a Taungurung history of thousands of generations.

“In the Taungurung footprint, the way the Traditional Owners think, the way they look at that landscape, the way they connect with Country is really important and inspiring. It helps us as, as joint managers, rethink how we work with Traditional Owners and manage the land.”


Climate change impacts

Julien says he’s already seen changes in the alpine environment, particularly following the 2013 fires at Mt Feathertop and Harrietville, and the 2019-20 fires at Mt Buffalo that have “changed forever what the landscape looks like and how the flora grows back in those places.”

a post-bushfire view of vegetation and rocks at Mount Buffalo
Mount Buffalo following the 2019-20 bushfires. Photo credit: Parks Victoria


“You can see climate change coming on a year-to-year basis. Over the last 12 years that I've been at Buffalo, you can see the changes of shrubs and trees growing in places where there were no shrubs and trees before because it used to be too cold for them to grow. It really demonstrates that there will be changes to this landscape over the long term, as this winter showed. We had spring-like conditions in the middle of winter. There's no way we can get away without things changing. Things have changed a lot.”


Act local, think global

Julien says that despite already seeing climate change in action, he feels everyone has a part to play in protecting the environment.

“My hope for the future is that society will reach that tipping point where they realise the impact they're having on the climate, the world, the local parks, the towns they live in. I hope that we become more responsible as a community and more considerate.”

“I've always said my job is to help people love the places we go, to love the outdoors and to love nature, because unless people love it, they won’t stick their hands up or vote to protect it, and that's what we need to do to protect these amazing places.”

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