Recipient Biography

Brian O'Neill


Brian O'Neill (1942 - ) received the Pugsley Medal in 2004 for "extraordinary leadership in the development of Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) and national contributions in the pioneering and nurturing of partnerships."

O'Neill was born in Washington D.C. and spent the first 27 years of his life in that area. He lived in Tacoma Park, Maryland, and attended Montgomery Blair High School. The genesis of his affinity for conservation and the outdoors was established by his family who were highly active in camping, the out-of-doors, and visiting national parks. This background made it natural for him to explore a career in this area.

 In high school, in the 1950s, O'Neill was inspired by a geography teacher who had established a non-profit organization whose mission was to take urban children on trips to see the great national parks of the west. As a freshman at the University of Maryland, he teamed with his twin brother Alan, (who also went to work with the NPS and became superintendent of Glacier National Park and Lake Mead National Recreation Area) and their mother to form a non-profit organization with a similar mission. On these trips they stayed at inexpensive accommodations on college campuses and at camp sites in the national parks.

After majoring in geography at the University of Maryland, O'Neill joined the U.S. Board of Geographical Names which was a branch of the U.S. Geological Survey. Soon after, at the beginning of 1965, the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation was formed implementing one of the recommendations emanating from the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (ORRRC) report. It appeared to O'Neill that this agency would be central in enacting several legislative conservation initiatives that had been recommended by the ORRRC and so he sought a position with it. Initially, there were no junior positions available but he kept pestering the agency seeking a way to join. Thus, when two junior positions were created he was promptly interviewed and hired late in 1965.

As a new agency with an extensive brief and a relatively small staff, there were many opportunities to define a role and to advance within the organization. O'Neill's first position was in the planning division where he worked on the Lewis and Clarke proposal that led to its establishment as a national historic trail. Subsequently, he was involved in several other studies which evaluated areas being considered by Congress for designation into the NPS system or as national wilderness areas. After doing several of these, O'Neill was assigned to a team that produced the studies that led to the establishment of the national trail system.

In a relatively short time period, O'Neill was appointed deputy director of BOR's office of urban park studies. Interior Secretary, Walter Hickel, initiated a project to evaluate the merits of bringing the mission and values of the NPS into the urban environment by identifying urban areas where there were extensive federal holdings that could be consolidated to become additions to the NPS system.

The first two areas studied were Golden Gate in San Francisco and Gateway in New York City. At the conclusion of these studies, O'Neill was part of the team making a presentation at the White House to the president's senior aides. This resulted in them persuading President Nixon that this was a politically wise action for him to pursue, which led to him sponsoring legislation to establish these urban parks. The team, of which O'Neill was a member, completed similar studies for other urban sites which later came to fruition at Santa Monica Mountains, close to Los Angeles; Cuyahoga in Ohio Valley; and the Chattahoochee River near Atlanta.

After his work on urban parks, O'Neill was selected by BOR director, James Watt, to a four person team charged with producing the first nationwide outdoor recreation plan. This had to be completed in 18 months which was a compressed timeframe and it was a high profile project. The team met weekly with Watt to report and plan progress. The outcome was a timely, well-received plan, done within budget. When he assigned O'Neill to the project, Watt promised "if this is done well, you will have your choice of assignments within BOR."

When he was presented with the available options at the end of that period, the most appealing to O'Neill was at the regional office in Albuquerque, New Mexico, so he moved there in 1972. His charge was to lead a group responsible for directing BOR programs in the state of Louisiana, and he was given the flexibility to use his resources in whatever way he perceived would make the most impact.

In 1976, the office was reorganized and O'Neill was appointed to lead a team responsible for offering technical assistance across the five state region. At this time, the tax revolt movement was gathering momentum, and its impact on the parks and recreation field was traumatic. Traditionally, the field had relied almost exclusively on tax funding. The drastic and sudden curtailment of public funds left many agency managers bewildered and bereft of ideas on how to proceed. O'Neill's technical unit stepped forward into this vacuum and launched the "Brown Cover" monograph series. This series of booklets on topics such as donations, foundations, volunteerism, outsourcing, partnerships and less-than-fee simple approaches, introduced to a large number of professionals in the field an array of new tools and a new way of thinking about how the field should conduct business. The booklets were supported by an extensive program of seminars at which O'Neill and his colleagues introduced and taught these new approaches to the profession. To enhance his skills in this area during this period at Albuquerque, O'Neill invested evenings in becoming certified by the Dale Carnegie organization as an instructor. By this time, the name of BOR had been changed to the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service (HCRS). This HCRS outreach program was focused on transitioning the field into a new era, and O'Neill was in the vanguard of that effort.

In 1979, O'Neill moved to become assistant regional director at the HCRS San Francisco office. This office had initiated a similar technical assistance program in response to the vacuum in public funds created by Proposition 13, which had recently been passed in California so O'Neill's expertise and leadership of this team were timely.

Soon after he arrived in San Francisco, O'Neill was appointed by Interior Secretary, Cecil Andrus, to head the federal side of a 30-person federal-state team charged with considering a proposal by California governor, Jerry Brown, to incorporate 2,000 miles of the north coast rivers in California into the national scenic rivers system -- the most ambitious effort undertaken to incorporate significant mileage into that system. It was widely recognized that this task had to be completed in the remaining 18 months of the Carter administration, since any subsequent administration may not be supportive. Most were skeptical that it could be accomplished because the powerful and well-funded timber and water interests vigorously attempted to thwart it by lobbying and through the court system. However, they failed and the day before leaving office, President Carter signed the legislation placing these rivers into the system. This was widely regarded as being a monumental success for conservation.

When James Watt became Interior Secretary in the Reagan Administration in 1981, he quickly announced his intention to merge the HCRS into the NPS. O'Neill had no operational experience at this point and realized that this was a priority if he was to be effective in the NPS. He was appointed to the regional team charged with planning the assimilation of the HCRS into the NPS. He became aware that the assistant superintendent position at Golden Gate was available and its superintendent encouraged him to apply for the position.

In some ways, this completed a circle since he had been involved in planning and advocating GGNRA 15 years earlier in his career, and now he assumed a senior managerial role in operating it. The superintendent was highly respected in the NPS and served as mentor to O'Neill. However, he was a traditional NPS manager and he recognized that O'Neill's expertise in partnerships, philanthropy, stewardship et al was the model needed at GGNRA. Accordingly, he encouraged O'Neill to lead in developing these approaches. In 1985 when O'Neill was fairly well established, the superintendent resigned to take a similar position in Sequoia which was a more traditional park. He forcefully advocated for O'Neill to be appointed to the position and this was confirmed in 1986.

As superintendent of GGNRA, O'Neill presides over one of the largest urban parks in the world with over 76,000 acres in Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties, which is more than twice the area of the city of San Francisco. The park has 59 miles of bay and ocean shoreline; 1250 historic structures; over 16 million visitors annually; an operating budget from Congress of $19 million; a staff of 347 NPS employees; and over 8,000 volunteers.

O'Neill sought out his appointments to GGNRA because he perceived that the park provided a particularly fertile environment for applying and further developing the partnership tools and techniques he had been pioneering and teaching at HCRS. GGNRA is perhaps the most complex administrative unit in the NPS. Its initial complexity was increased when the Presidio of San Francisco was transitioned from a military installation to become a unit of GGNRA in the 1990s, managed jointly by GGNRA and the Presidio Trust. O'Neill played a central role in the development of the legislation and negotiations with Congress in the transition.

The complexity of GGNRA emanates from three sources. First, it has an extraordinary array of natural resources. This was not recognized when it was first established, but its extensive holdings along the California coast have resulted in it being rated as one of the six most biodiverse NPS areas in the country. Hence, there is a strong mandate to protect the resource. Second, GGNRA contains the remnants of ten former military installations. These are the main source of the park's 1,250 historic structures, which constitute 7% of all designated historic structures in the U.S. Third, the park has a proximate urban population of 6.5 million people, which means that it receives extraordinary levels of use.

When Congress agreed to the Presidio, the largest of these military installations, becoming a part of the NPS system, it mandated that it should be self-sufficient after 15 years of operation which placed additional responsibility on GGNRA to generate resources from it. Congress intended this self-sufficiency criterion for the Presidio to be a model for future additions to the NPS system to follow. The extraordinary complexity of the GGNRA/Presidio unit forced O'Neill to invent different ways both of connecting to the community and of funding resources.  He observed:

I felt this was a good innovation lab for the Park Service in that we had just about every kind of issue it deals with nationally, in one way or another, and that we had a community that was very environmentally advanced in its thinking and action. We felt that if it couldn't work here, it would probably have a difficult time working elsewhere. This was a safer environment for innovation because the community had such strong support for parks and open space, and a willingness to get involved. So we're trying to get the Park Service here to be more open to seeking out new and different ways of being able to meet the challenges that we face. I love the work, and I consider it really important that each of us who occupy a senior position in the NPS give a certain amount of our time to helping others, learning from others, and looking at how we apply that both on a national level and locally.

The needs of the GGNRA were so enormous that it was obvious to O'Neill that they would never be met through Congressional appropriations. Thus, he developed a "stewardship investment strategy" to guide how GGNRA thought about generating the resources the park needs. The culture O'Neill nurtured at GGNRA, which is the basic premise on which the strategy rests, is that partnerships are the core principle for thinking about how best to accomplish the park's mission and build a community for stewardship. O'Neill observed:

Our folks have chosen public service because they have passion and commitment to the Park Service. What we found, however, is that no matter how effective they are in doing their work, each of them as individuals could only get one full-time equivalent of output from their best effort. As a result we had to make them see that their role isn't so much the doer of the work themselves, but the leader who facilitates the convening and brokering of community talent to create a sense of citizen stewardship of their national park. It means we're looking for a different set of competencies in our employees than before.

O'Neill recognized that building ownership in the community of the park's values and winning support is dependent on building relationships with a wide spectrum of people and getting them involved in the park's operations. The establishment of many hundreds of partnerships at GGNRA means that there are many thousands of people emotionally and passionately involved in the park's affairs. They have an ownership stake because they have effort, energy and resources invested in some aspect of its well being. O'Neill commented, "People give to people. You have to tap into individuals, corporations and foundations that have an emotional engagement with the park." He explained:

People won't support a park unless they've become emotionally connected to it. We've realized that the emotional connection and sense of ownership of the values of the place really requires what we call "incremental hooking." This is really a series of incrementally deeper and deeper engagements that you provide to individuals, or groups, on a corporate basis.

A key partner is the Golden Gate National Park Conservancy which was established in 1982. Since that time, it has invested nearly $78 million in the park. O'Neill instituted relationship managers for all of GGNRA's partners. Their job is to keep in regular contact with the partner, know what the partner is doing, identify problems and determine if O'Neill needs to be brought in. The outcome of this strategy at GGNRA is that 18% of the park's services are delivered by NPS staff and 82% by a host of park partners. The $19 million Congressional budget allocation is leveraged almost dollar for dollar through a variety of other sources.

O'Neill crystallized his expertise in partnerships in a paper entitled "Brian O'Neill's 21 Partnership Success Factors." It is the seminal writing in the parks and conservation field on this topic, offering insightful and pragmatic counsel on the development and nurturing of partnerships distilled from the experience of a career invested in focusing upon them. The NPS capitalized on O'Neill's expertise and sought to institutionalize it within the organization by requesting that he assist the agency's director in creating a new assistant director position within NPS to foster partnerships for the agency. The director then prevailed upon him to serve as its first occupant for a year to give it direction and focus in its critical gestation period.

O'Neill is described by his peers in the NPS as one of the agency's "giants", but also as "everyone's best friend." At an early age, he read Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People and it made a lasting impression on him. People like doing business with him and being involved in his projects because they are positive, innovative, fun and inspiring. He is one of those charismatic, nurturing leaders who inspire others and help them succeed.

San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (2004) an Interview with Brian O'Neill SPUR Newsletter, January. 
Brian O'Neill's 21 Partnership Success Factors can be found at
Golden, Caron (2005) The golden rule: National park chief taps into emotional engagement Government Leader 1(3).