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Lucas, Percy Hylton Craig (Bing)

1925–2000

Public servant, conservationist, writer, community worker

This biography, written by Tim Shoebridge, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2022.

Public servant Bing Lucas was responsible for developing New Zealand’s modern national park system from the early 1970s, balancing conservation and recreational values. Under his direction its workforce was professionalised, orderly and unified planning was introduced, and the value of protecting ecologically unique areas was recognised alongside a desire to preserve the scenic alpine environments which attract sightseers. He achieved a high profile in world heritage governance through his involvement with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Childhood and education

Percy Hylton Craig (Bing) Lucas was born in St Albans, Christchurch, on 9 June 1925, the only child of Ethel Lena Craig and her husband, land agent Percy Charles Lucas. Ethel Lucas died suddenly in 1938, when her son was 13. Lucas later credited his adult love of the outdoors to his teenage holidays with his father in the Hanmer Springs and Lewis Pass area, and he enjoyed long-distance cycling with friends.

Lucas was educated at St Albans School, Christchurch Boys’ High School and Canterbury University College (1944–48), where he studied accountancy. He received his distinctive nickname when a high school teacher forgot his name and addressed him as Bing, remembering an essay he had written about entertainer Bing Crosby. He loved jazz and swing music, and the name stuck.

Lucas married Kura Joyce Pitcher in the Baptist church on Oxford Terrace, Christchurch, on 20 November 1948; they had a son and daughter together. 

Early public service career

In 1942 Lucas began work as a clerk in the Christchurch office of the Lands and Survey Department, the branch of government charged with administering Crown land and national reserves and fostering land development. He served a brief stint in head office in Wellington in 1947, but missed Christchurch and returned there to work for Shell Oil. He returned to Lands and Survey after eight months, disliking the private sector, and remained with the Department for the rest of his career. He completed an accountancy qualification in 1949, but never used it in his work.

Lucas moved back to Wellington in 1952, where he lived for the rest of his life. He initially worked in the Department’s Wellington district office on outdoor recreation and reserves, helping to establish Trentham Memorial Park in Upper Hutt and Queen Elizabeth Park at Paekākāriki, and serving as first secretary for the boards of each. In the mid-1950s he returned to head office as staff training and personnel officer, which involved regularly travelling around the country, giving him a good overview of the department’s work nationwide. In 1959, Lucas was appointed administrative assistant to Director-General of Lands D.N.R. (Neil) Webb, a role which provided him with valuable senior management experience. He was promoted to assistant commissioner of crown lands in the Wellington office in 1966.

Champion of national parks

From the mid-1960s, Lucas became increasingly interested in conservation issues, at a time of growing public disquiet about the destructive impact of industrial development on the country’s natural landscape. He viewed the enjoyment of nature as a necessary counterweight to the pressures and constraints of urban life, contributing to ‘the physical and, I suggest, the spiritual well being of our society and the quality of its life.’1 Lucas was active in the Baptist church, and his Christian faith, with its emphasis on service and stewardship, was central to his world-view throughout his adult life. This was challenged when he attended a resource management conference in 1967, at which some speakers argued that the passage in the Book  of Genesis that mankind was made to ‘fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over ... every living thing’, had provided a rationale for ongoing destruction of the natural environment.2 Shaken by this attack on his faith, Lucas embraced a different interpretation of the text, one which charged humans with a moral duty to protect the natural environment from destructive exploitation.

Lucas’s promotion to assistant director of administration in 1967 increased his involvement in the administration of the national park system. This had grown considerably. The first four national parks had been created between 1887 and 1942, and six more had been established between 1952 and 1964. All had been placed under the control of local boards, protecting them from commercial development. The National Parks Act 1952 created a National Parks Authority to oversee the work of the boards, though there were still only 38 rangers to manage over two million hectares of national park by the mid-1960s. Tracks were primitive and huts rare. The Lands and Survey Department funded and serviced the authority and had overall responsibility for the system. Lucas came to regard national parks as under-resourced compared to the energy the Department dedicated to the other side of its work, the commercial development of farm land.

The rapid growth in the number of visitors to national parks from the mid-1960s prompted the Department to reassess its national park and reserve administration, and it looked overseas for management models. In 1969 Lucas was awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship, enabling him to travel to the United States to attend a National Park Service course seeking to explain and popularise American principles of National Park management. The American system centralised control of national parks to ensure consistency of practice and proper resourcing of facilities. The trip gave Lucas a deeper appreciation of the importance of wilderness, natural, recreational, historic and spiritual values in protected natural areas. He spent four months travelling around North American national parks, staying at camping grounds and meeting park staff, and visiting Jasper, Banff, Mesa Verde and the Grand Canyon. He subsequently met with government officials in Washington, Denver and Ottawa, establishing relationships of ongoing value both for own his career and for the development of New Zealand parks and reserves management.

On his return from North America, the Department appointed Lucas to the newly upgraded position of director of national parks and scenic reserves. He outlined his ambitions for the national park system, inspired by American practices, in his report on his study tour, which was published by the Department as Conserving New Zealand’s heritage (1970). Lucas described it as ‘my bible for where New Zealand should go,’ and it did prove very influential for future developments.3 He argued that national parks should be preserved as natural environments, protected as far possible from commercial and industrial exploitation, while also catering to the needs of recreational users. This could best be achieved by a well-funded national parks programme, managed by a full-time, professional staff, who could help protect the parks and implement interpretation and education programmes to enrich visitors’ experiences.

During his six years as director, Lucas was able to achieve many of these goals, which were enthusiastically taken up by Duncan MacIntyre, the minister of lands from 1966 to 1972. He began with the professionalisation of the ranger service, which was incorporated into the public service in 1969, helping create uniformity of practice nationwide and attract more candidates to the role. Additional rangers were rapidly recruited, and from 1976 training was formalised by the creation of a specialised course at Lincoln University. A 1970 national park symposium in Christchurch heralded a new focus on planning, and detailed plans for each park were developed over the following five years. This brought an emphasis on education with the opening of new visitors’ centres, public awareness campaigns, and the implementation of consistent and high-quality signage, along with a drive for ongoing improvement of facilities and the opening of new tracks.

These developments helped put New Zealand’s national park system at the forefront of international best practice in environmental management, and the department trained rangers from other countries to replicate its success. Lucas led technical cooperation expeditions to Nepal in 1974 and 1976 and Peru in 1974, and served as a UNESCO consultant in Nepal in 1980 and as a UN Development Programme consultant in Indonesia in 1983.

Lucas also worked to develop a network of public walkways to complement the national park system, an idea MacIntyre championed at the political level. From 1975 Lucas chaired the newly established Walkways Commission, a body created to develop public walking tracks through both public and private land, mostly near urban centres. By the time he stood down as chair in 1986, the commission had created 126 individual tracks, totalling about 1200 kilometres in length, some of which connected to, and extended, tracks through national parks.

Lucas came to champion the idea that certain remote localities should be preserved as unpathed wilderness areas, and chaired the department’s Wilderness Advisory Committee from 1981 until 1986. He was also involved in the 1977 establishment of the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust, which set out to preserve and enhance open spaces by coordinating government initiatives and creating new reserves.

When a government proposal to raise the levels of Lakes Manapōuri and Te Anau, in Fiordland National Park, for a hydroelectric scheme became a major public and political issue, Lucas helped defend the principle embodied in the National Parks Act that national parks should be protected from commercial development. In 1970, speaking for the National Parks Authority,  he addressed the commission of inquiry into the proposed scheme, refuting the developers’ argument that Lake Buttle, at the northern end of Vancouver Island, provided evidence that lake levels could be raised for electricity generation without destroying the natural environment. Lucas showed that with the rise and fall of water levels, tree stumps were exposed and the forest edge collapsed because of exposure to wind.

Success with national parks saw Lucas rapidly promoted to positions of greater authority in the Lands and Survey Department. He was appointed assistant director-general in 1975, deputy director-general in 1978, and director-general in 1980. As permanent head, he worked to extend the conservation values of the national park system to the rest of the department’s work, modelling ‘responsible stewardship’ in its land development work by protecting wetlands and native forest.4 The Reserves Act 1977 and the new National Parks Act 1980 had opened the way for a new approach to park management which emphasised the protection of unique ecological areas as well as the scenic mountainous regions traditionally reserved as national parks. He had stints as deputy chairman of the National Parks Authority (1975–81), and as a member of the Land Settlement Board (1975–81) and the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (1969–75).

Lucas’s tenure as director-general concluded with the dismantling of the Lands and Survey Department. The fourth Labour government, elected in July 1984, embarked on a major programme of public sector reform which, among other things, moved to separate commercial from non-commercial functions. Thus in 1987 the Department of Lands and Survey was broken up and its commercial development functions moved to a new state-owned enterprise while its conservation functions, including management of national parks, were joined with those of other departments in a new Department of Conservation. Lucas had reservations about separating conservation from land development, believing his department had successfully managed the dual responsibilities, but recognised that there was an appetite for change and worked supportively with the working group tasked with the restructuring. He retired in 1986, feeling that he had achieved most of his major objectives.

Community work and international conservation advocacy

Bing Lucas’s stature as a leading national parks administrator propelled him into a parallel career with the International Union for the Conservation of Natural Resources (IUCN), an important environmental organisation representing numerous governments and organisations with close ties to the United Nations. Lucas was appointed to the International Commission on National Parks and Protected Areas, an IUCN committee, in 1971, and served as one of its Australia and Oceania representatives (1978–84, 1988–94), its vice-chair (1975–84), its chair (1990–94) and, finally, its vice-chair once again (1995–2000). He was the IUCN expert on world heritage, part of a six-person committee which reviewed all the applications for world heritage status and made recommendations to the World Heritage Committee.

After his retirement, Lucas devoted much of his time to promoting the cause of protected landscapes through the IUCN, leading the team that published the standard textbook, Protected landscapes: a guide for policy-makers and planners (1992). He served as IUCN consultant in various countries in Asia, Europe and the Pacific during the later 1980s, and was a fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii in 1990 and at the International Centre for Protected Landscapes in Wales in 1993. He maintained close ties with a number of Pacific conservation authorities.

The IUCN awarded him its Merit Award for Services to Conservation in 1984, made him a member of honour, and named an internship after him. In 1994 he was made an Officer of the Order of the Golden Ark (Netherlands) for his services to world conservation. In New Zealand, Lucas’s work culminated in Tongariro National Park being recognised as the country’s first joint Cultural and Natural World Heritage site in 1993. He was made a Companion of the Queen’s Service Order in 1986 and awarded a New Zealand 1990 Commemoration Medal for services to conservation. He was presented with the A.O. Glasse Award for services to Planning and Tourism in 1986, and the Ian Galloway Cup for services to parks and recreation in 1989. The New Zealand Institute of Landscape Architects made him an honorary fellow.

Bing Lucas found time for a wide range of community work in addition to his professional activities. He was a foundation member of the Tawa-Linden Baptist Church in 1952, taught its bible class, wrote its history in 1965 and its weekly newsletter for 20 years, and served as its secretary from 1954 to 1964. He served stints as secretary of the Wellington Boys’ Brigade (1953–56), as national president of the New Zealand Youth Hostel Association and as trustee of the Wellington Civic Trust. He also wrote the lyrics for Saul Talk, a Christian musical performed in Wellington in 1974, in Christchurch in 1975, and in other centres in 1976. While serving on the Tawa Borough Council (1971–84), he worked to keep the crests of hills free of development, to provide access to walkways from subdivisions, and urged that the remaining forest be protected. He loved sport, and wrote histories of the Porirua and Western Suburbs football teams (1966, 1989). Bing Lucas Drive in Tawa was named after him.

Bing Lucas died on 17 December 2000, aged 75, during a family tramp on the Queen Charlotte Walkway. He was survived by his wife and children. A speaker at his funeral described him as ‘a tireless worker, a dependable voice of calm when the going got tough; a man endowed with outstanding qualities of balance and sound judgment; a consensus builder with a unique ability to find the best way through a tangled problem and solve it with quiet firmness’.5 The IUCN praised him as ‘truly a key figure in late twentieth century conservation.’6

Footnotes:
  1. P.H.C. Lucas. ‘Recreation and the national environment’. New Zealand Parks and Reserves, v.3 n.1, April 1971: 29. Back
  2. Genesis 1: 26–28. Back
  3. C. Benge. ‘Bing of Tawa.’ Today’s Christian 12, May 1990: 16. Back
  4. Ibid: 18. Back
  5. Obituary. New Zealand Baptist, February 2001: 25. Back
  6. Conservation Study Institute. Landscape conservation: an international working session on the stewardship of protected landscapes. Proceedings of a Special Meeting of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas, 15–17 June 1999, preface. Back
How to cite this page:

Tim Shoebridge. 'Lucas, Percy Hylton Craig (Bing)', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2022. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6l7/lucas-percy-hylton-craig-bing (accessed 8 October 2022)