Brian O'Neill

Brian O'Neill - the longtime superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area who helped transform the Presidio and other military bases into parkland.

 

by American Trails Staff

Brian O'Neill 2004; Photo courtesy the Chronicle

Brian O'Neill was born in 1942 in Washington, D.C., and spent his first 27 years there. When he was in high school, he and his twin brother, Alan, teamed up with their mother to found a nonprofit organization to take urban children on trips to national parks.

After graduating from the University of Maryland, he joined the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation and worked on the planning of various parks.

The Bureau of Outdoor Recreation was later called the Heritage Conservation and Recreation service and merged into the National Park Service in 1981. His brother became superintendent of Glacier National Park and Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

Mr. O'Neill was not the first superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, but he was doubtless the most important. He was in on the planning of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area when the spectacular coastline was still part of U.S. Army posts at the Presidio and at Forts Baker, Barry and Cronkhite in Marin.

His spellbinding presentation to the White House convinced President Richard Nixon to endorse the concept of a park in San Francisco and even make a trip out West to see the land.

"Brian was part of the park even before it was born," said Amy Meyer, co-chairwoman of People for a Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a group that lobbied heavily for what became the GGNRA.

"He was in the DNA of this place," said Greg Moore, executive director of the Golden Gate Parks Conservancy, one of the park's prime partnership organizations.

Mr. O'Neill was in charge of a $25 million operating budget, 347 park service employees and 20,000 volunteers, the largest number of volunteer workers of any park in the world.

He has been credited with turning Alcatraz from a decrepit former prison into a world-class destination, with audio tours and guard-inmate reunions. He also made his vision for a park in the Presidio a reality after 200 years of military use dating back to the Spanish.

He was a driving force behind the $32 million Crissy Field renovation project, which by 2001 had transformed the crumbling airfield into a tidal lagoon surrounded by dune grass and walkways. He got private enterprise to refurbish and operate Cavallo Point, a conference center at Fort Baker at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge.

He also oversaw the incorporation of additional land, including Mori Point, a 110-acre stretch of headlands that became part of the park in 2002. His energies were most recently focused on luring young people out of the city and into the 118 square miles of open space that he had helped save.

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