Bay Nature magazineJuly-September 2009


Remembering Brian O’Neill

July 1, 2009

On May 13, the Bay Area–and the nation–lost one of its most eloquent and effective advocates for open space preservation and access. Brian O’Neill, superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) since 1986, died of complications from heart surgery. He was 67.

O’Neill advocated for the GGNRA even before it was created. In 1972, he persuaded President Richard Nixon to visit the land before it was made a park, and throughout his career, first as assistant superintendent in 1981 and then as superintendent, he shaped the GGNRA into a unique synthesis of urban accessibility, habitat preservation, and volunteer engagement. In the process, O’Neill essentially forged the model for what a national park in an urban setting could, and should, be. During O’Neill’s tenure, the GGNRA grew to more than 80,500 acres, stretching from Tomales Bay to the Santa Cruz Mountains. With over 17 million visitors annually, it’s one of the most popular units of the National Park Service. And it has one of the most engaged volunteer corps of any park system: Last year, some 22,000 volunteers worked in the park under the auspices of GGNRA and its nonprofit partner, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

“Everywhere you turn in this national park–Crissy Field, Alcatraz, Fort Baker, the Presidio, and more–we see his amazing handiwork,” wrote Parks Conservancy Director Greg Moore on a website created to honor O’Neill. “But he was much more than a park maker; he really was, at the core, a community builder. Few national parks can match the outpouring of volunteers, donors, members, or visitors who have been inspired by Brian or served by his dedicated National Park staff.”

Share your memories of O’Neill and donate to the Brian O’Neill Youth Conservation Leader Fund at

About the Author

Writer Aleta George trained as a Jepson Prairie docent in 2009. In addition to writing Bay Nature's Ear to the Ground column, she has written for Smithsonian, High Country News, and the Los Angeles Times.