Two national park champions died recently: Thomas (“Tom”) Lewis on 25 April 2016, aged 94; Neville (“Nev”) Gare on 7 May 2016, aged 86.
Both Nev and Tom will be remembered for their pivotal contributions to nature conservation in NSW. I knew both men in the early stages of my national park career, and I couldn’t let their passing go without some personal reminiscences.
I met Nev in early 1970 when I transferred to Kosciuszko National Park from Sydney’s Ku-ring-gai Chase. He had been the Kosciuszko superintendent since 1959 and had a formidable reputation. I learnt ‘why’ at his funeral, when family and friends gave heart-felt eulogies.
Nev graduated with a forestry degree in 1952 and over the next 6 years worked in several forestry districts throughout NSW. However, he soon became disenchanted with forestry logging policy and began advocating for the protection of high value habitats. This did not endear him to the forestry hierarchy.
Nev solved his problem by successfully applying for the first superintendent position of the then Kosciusko State Park. I heard he had confrontations with cattle graziers, Snowy Mountains Authority engineers, and resort developers as he established a park presence in the mountains. Although Nev was a short in stature, he wasn’t short on passion when it came to defending Kosciuszko. Around the park in the 1960’s, he was referred to as ‘God’, a mark of respect, not omnipotence!
In 1966, Nev undertook a study tour of America’s national parks. The US National Parks Service was already 50 years old, while Australia had yet to establish even one state-based park’s service. There was much to see, hear, and learn, and Nev returned with armfuls of documents, one of which was to cause me some grief.
I recall that my first meeting with Nev was friendly, though his short-back- and-sides crew cut was at odds with my fashionably lengthy Beatles style. The response was swift – within a few days a memo (taken from a US Park Service manual!), had been circulated advising rangers of appropriate dress and appearance standards. God had spoken!
However, more importantly, was that Nev supported me carrying out research for a master’s degree during the 3 years I was based in Thredbo.
In 1971, Nev’s reign at Kosciuszko ended when he took up a posting in Papua New Guinea, helping to establish a park service as the country moved towards independence.
Nev remained a mountain man in retirement, with regular visits to the high country. He gave freely of his knowledge and wisdom to those who followed him in being stewards of this great national park.
In December, 1974, I was to transfer to Sturt National Park, near Tibooburra, in the north-west corner of the state. However, before I headed west, I was to become aware of the political consequences of my pending move. I was summoned to Sydney to meet Tom Lewis, then Minister for Lands (and hence national parks). Sturt was the minister’s favourite park, in part due to his affection for the arid zone, but also due to a family connection with Charles Sturt’s 1844/45 expedition. Tom Lewis’ forebear, William Lewis, was to sail the expedition’s boat should they encounter an inland sea.
Tom was the driving force behind the creation of the 310,000 ha arid zone area, and he wanted to meet the new ranger who would be managing ‘his’ park. He made it very clear that maintaining the Mount Wood homestead lawns and gardens was one of his (and hence my) top priorities!
We met several times during my time out west, as every 6 months or so, Tom (a pilot) would fly in with a planeload of mates – pollies, journos, photographers, etc. He was always on the lookout to promote his outback park.
Tom’s most memorable visit coincided with the annual Tibooburra Hospital ball, the event on the local social calendar. Country folk travelled hundreds of miles to attend the festive occasion – station hands, shearers, governesses, rangers, shopkeepers, etc. The CWA hall was bursting with colourful balloons and streamers, while the Boiled Lollies – who had travelled 550 km from Enngonia to perform – kept the hall rocking till the wee small hours.
Among Tom’s entourage was David McNicoll, editor-in-chief of the Bulletin magazine. We all put on our dancing shoes and joined the revellers; a wonderful time was had by all. Tom and his planeload of travellers then visited several other locations on their 8-day outback adventure.
Not long after, David published a piece in the Bulletin, titled ‘New deal for Australia’s wildlife’, describing the conservation benefits of protecting large tracts of arid country. Separate to the main story, he wrote about the hospital ball, under the heading ‘Last tango in Tibooburra’ – it was a wonderful account of a memorable night.
I revisited Sturt in 2004. The local ranger told me that Tom was still visiting ‘his’ park.
Nev and Tom
Nev and Tom knew each other. From what I heard, there was mutual respect, maybe friendship, of the public servant-politician kind.
Tom became Minister for Lands in 1965. Nev’s US study tour was in 1966. Tom visited Kosciuszko National Park, and was impressed with Nev’s management approach; he discussed the US National Parks Service with Nev after his study tour. These discussions helped shape the National Parks and Wildlife Service, which Tom established in 1967.
Nev wrote a book about his time as Kosciuszko superintendent; Tom wrote the introduction. Hopefully, one day, the book will be published.
Vale Tom, Vale Nev – two national park champions.