If you’ve ever hiked Sweeney Ridge, or biked the Marin Headlands, or birdwatched at Fort Funston, or been seduced by wildflowers at Mori Point, Brian O’Neill has touched your life. And he will continue to touch it, even though the long-time superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) passed away on May 13, 2009–much too soon–due to complications from heart surgery. His absence is as palpable as his presence.
To understand Brian’s legacy, it’s helpful to think back (if you’re old enough) to what “national park” meant in the early 1970s. The phrase called to mind places like Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, or Yosemite–grand, beautiful . . . and remote. But in the late 1960s, under President Nixon (of all people), employees at the old federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation–including a young Brian O’Neill–started working on the concept of urban national parks. Considering the social ferment at the time, it’s not too surprising that an idea like bringing parks to the people would sprout, even inside the federal bureaucracy. What is surprising is that in 1969 Secretary of the Interior Walter Hickel gave the green light to the proposal for a Golden Gate National Recreation Area presented to him by Brian and other staffers.
Twelve years later, Brian had made his way to the West Coast and was appointed GGNRA’s deputy superintendent. When he became superintendent in 1986, Brian finally had the canvas on which to paint his masterpiece, bringing to fruition the concept of an urban park truly accessible to everyone in the region. Throughout his tenure, Brian created partnerships and programs that reached out to Bay Area communities and brought them into the park for learning, stewardship, and good old outdoor fun.
Check out Crissy Field on a weekend for a glimpse of Brian’s legacy. People of all ages and colors stroll, jog, skate, bike, or windsurf by within view of shorebirds that have flocked to the restored tidal lagoon on this former military airfield. The nearby Crissy Field Center attracts hundreds of urban kids and families for programs where they learn about the natural world and how to care for it. The relationship between the park and the nonprofit Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy that Brian nurtured is a model for getting private citizens involved in a public park, as evidenced by the 22,000 people who volunteered in 2008. And this only hints at what Brian’s creative leadership brought to the Bay Area.
It is worthwhile reflecting on Brian O’Neill’s legacy in the face of Governor Schwarzenegger’s recent proposal to eliminate funding for state parks to help solve the state budget crisis without raising taxes. While Brian understood well that government cannot and should not be the answer in every situation, the GGNRA’s success is a powerful example of the great things we can accomplish when we pool our resources–public and private–for the common good.
That’s a thought I’ll keep in mind next time I visit my favorite ridgetop at the Marin Headlands, on land that narrowly escaped becoming a housing development, to take in the grand vista from the Pacific to the City to the Bay. It’s priceless, yet it’s ours and it’s free. Don’t miss it–and don’t ever take it for granted.
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Veteran environmental activist, writer, editor, publisher, educator, and coastal wetlands scientist Phyllis Faber has made countless contributions to the Bay Area environmental movement.