Friday, May 15, 2009

Mourning the loss of Brian O'Neill

I was surprised and saddened, this morning, to find a note on our park's electronic bulletin board reporting the sudden passing of Golden Gate National Recreation Area's superintendent, Brian O'Neill. Brian died yesterday of complications following heart surgery.

Most of you who volunteer at Mount Rainier, I'm sure, have no idea who Brian O'Neill is. But his influence is huge on our volunteer program. Over his tenure at Golden Gate, Brian transformed the role of volunteers from one that was peripheral to a park ranger's daily duties into one that was central to everything they did. I heard him speak several times, and his vision was inspiring. We shouldn't figure out what we're capable of doing by ourselves and then give the leftovers to volunteers, he said; instead, we should identify every possible ways that volunteers can help us, and then organize ourselves in ways that support that. He passionately believed that working with members of the larger community, beyond the physical boundaries and paid personnel roles of the park, improved both our ability to protect the resources of the park and our ability to serve its visitors. Volunteers, he said, are our first and most important partners, and, when needed, are an army of advocates on our behalf.

Over the years, this vision infused every aspect of Golden Gate's hiring and personnel management. Supervisors were hired, in part, based on their ability and willingness to work with volunteers. Field staff were trained to work alongside volunteers. Field staff are often suspicious of volunteers, fearing that volunteers will replace them; instead, Brian promoted the field staff to leadership positions training and leading volunteers. He established partnerships with the Golden Gate Conservancy, the Garden Conservancy, and many other groups to take on vital projects and work with volunteers to solve them. I saw this philosophy in action when I visited Golden Gate a few months ago, and it was awe-inspiring to see how much work was getting done, and how effectively.

We have some challenges at Rainier that they don't have at Golden Gate, especially a population base located farther from the physical resources of the park, but we also have some of the same opportunities to develop partnerships with volunteers and volunteer groups, and the same benefits to gain from it. It is based on the Golden Gate template that we chose to work with the Student Conservation Association over the past two years not just to do flood recovery work, but to lead volunteers in doing the recovery work--a tactic that doubled the number of active volunteers in two years. It is based on the model of Golden Gate that we chose to hire volunteer coordinators this summer in four key areas of the park's operation, to enhance our capacity to include volunteers in the vital work of the park.

Our deepest condolences go to the family and friends of Brian O'Neill, and to the employees of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Brian's legacy will be long and productive, and reaches well beyond the Golden Gates to the mountains and meadows of Mount Rainier.

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