Tuesday, May 19, 2009
GGNRA -- The Tragic Legacy Of Brian O'Neill (1986 - 2009)
The glowing accounts in the local media regarding the late GGNRA Superintendent Brian O'Neill probably reflect personal friendships with the man rather than anything approaching objectivity. And, insofar as that is the case, journalists are clearly entitled to their opinion, although it would be more appropriately suited as Op-Ed material rather than hard news.
To the extent the media is attempting to portray O'Neill in his role as General Superintendent of the GGNRA, they have fallen far short of being accurate.
For example, they use the term "sensitive habitat" without explanation. The term has no scientific or legal definition, but came in vogue during O'Neill's tenure for the purpose of putting lands within the Park off-limits to recreational usage, the first and foremost purpose of the GGNRA as a unique urban national park (it's right there in the enabling legislation, a point I will come back to). The term is broad enough to encompass virtually anything and that is how O'Neill used it. Ironically, the media generally refers to the GGNRA as "his park" and that is exactly as he treated it. As he said to a friend of mine on the former Citizens Advisory Committee, "I will not have dogs running loose in my park." Of course, O'Neill's proprietary desires over the Park ran contrary to its purpose. He was so against the Park's unique enabling legislation that he recently enlisted Nancy Pelosi to introduce a bill into Congress that would not simply change the name of the Park, but eliminate the word "recreation" wherever it appears in the original and current enabling legislation. Clearly, under O'Neill's helm, the goal has been to eliminate recreation first from the GGNRA and make it into a museum -- something to be looked at but not used.
O'Neill's warped vision of the GGNRA (that is, one clearly contrary to the intent of Congress and the City and County of San Francisco is deeding lands to it) was manifested in several illegalities: he was found to have acted illegally in closing off a portion of Fort Funston to everyone and everything, and he was found to have violated the law in rescinding his own 1979 Pet Policy on tidelands that remain owned by the State and are without federal jurisdiction (Crissy Field and Ocean Beach being two). O'Neill also brought the nativism movement to the Park, a movement with no scientific basis but only a preferential one. So much so that allegedly non-native white deer are being massacred at Point Reyes. Forget about relocation or more humane tactics -- if the nativists have their way, the non-native is killed and forgotten about, at least until it becomes endangered or threatened. The movement perhaps finds its most ridiculous extreme in the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on "restoring native plants to Crissy Field". Of course, if you are a born and raised San Franciscan or otherwise know the history of Crissy Field, the only thing native to it was the bay. It is all landfill and there were no native plants there other than those that might have lived underwater. The nativists under O'Neill also decimated ice plant at Fort Funston (in favor of "native" plants) with the result that the Bank Swallows fled the area and have not returned.
O'Neill was also responsible for refusing to follow federal law and allow handicap access to the Park. A year or so ago, a lawsuit had to be brought in order to bring the GGNRA into compliance with federal laws protecting the handicapped. With 30 years of time to comply with such laws, they too were flouted by the GGNRA.
There are many pages that can be spent discussing the warped agenda of Brian O'Neill but I doubt they are things you wish to hear. In the end, O'Neill will be remembered by many people as a despot. More significantly, I find him to be the tragic figure portrayed by Lord Byron:
"When some proud son of man returns to earth
Unknown to glory but upheld by birth
The sculptor's art exhausts the pomp of woe
And storied urns record who rests below.
When all is done upon the tomb is seen
Not what he was
But what he should have been."
O'Neill's charge was to keep the GGNRA open and active for recreation. Virtually everything he did violated that charge and will continue to do so under the philosophy he created. This is not something for the media to extol.