An interview with Brian O’Neill, Superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Greg Moore, Executive Director of the Golden Gate National Parks Association, moderated by Jane Rogers, Program Executive at the San Francisco Foundation.

From Parks as Community Places: San Francisco, 1998, a publication on the Urban Parks Institute’s annual conference..

As superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Brian O’Neill oversees an annual operating budget of $29 million, a staff of 470 employees, and a volunteer force of over 6,000. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area encompasses 76,000 acres of land within Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties. It is the most visited unit of the National Park System in America, receiving over 20 million visitors annually, and is perhaps the largest national park area adjacent to any major city in the world. The recreation area encompasses 22 different sites, including 10 forts, over 100 gun batteries, and over 700 historic sites or buildings, including Alcatraz, the Presidio, Muir Woods, and Fort Point.

Greg Moore is the Executive Director of the Golden Gate National Parks Association. He has held this position for over ten years. The Association works in partnership with the National Park Service to preserve and enhance parklands in the San Francisco Bay area. Since its inception, the association has provided close to $25 million in support to park planning, improvement and education programs. The association emphasizes linking community resources to the park and expanding public stewardship of these parklands.

Brian and Greg have a decade-long collaboration on the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. In many ways their partnership has a great deal more in common with those working in urban parks than they have with most of their colleagues in the national parks system.

Jane Rogers is the Program Executive for Environment at the San Francisco Foundation, which is the local community foundation for the city and county of San Francisco and the regional community foundation for the Bay Area. She also supervises the Foundation’s Awards and Fellowships Program. She has managed the San Francisco Foundation’s Environment Program for 13 years, focusing on the livability and sustainability of the Bay Area’s urban environment and natural ecosystems.

The interview took place on April 5, 1998 at the St. Francis Marina in San Francisco, California.

ROGERS: Let’s begin at the beginning. How did the Golden Gate National Parks Association arise?

MOORE: How did the Parks Association begin? We began out of a very simple recognition that in an urban setting there were many, many ways to connect the Golden Gate National Parks to the community that would add value to what the Park Service was already doing. In an area of 5 million people, the opportunities for volunteer service are incredible, and the benefits of community engagement are truly remarkable.

“The National Park Service needed one non-profit partner whose sole purpose would be to look at the big picture with us.”

O’NEILL: Since the park extends almost 80 miles north and south — and included within its boundaries are ten former military installations, with over 1,250 buildings — it was clear to us from the very beginning that we neither could nor should do it all ourselves. We knew that we were going to have literally hundreds of different partners — partners that joined with us to carry out programs, facilities and operations within those buildings.

But our vision was that the National Park Service needed one non-profit partner whose sole purpose would be to look at the big picture with us. To be able to set a clear vision and help us mobilize the community to have a sense of ownership of a park in a way that would translate into support, and bring the individual pieces together into a unified whole.

ROGERS: Let’s hear about some of the advantages that the two institutions brought to the formation of this partnership.

O’NEILL: I love the fact that the National Park Service has a deep keel and is an agency that is in business in perpetuity. But with that comes all sorts of issues. So when we were selecting a partner and determining the advantages of having that kind of partner, the ability to be fluid and flexible was a great interest to us.

For example, at the National Park Service, we have our own policies and procedures, and of course we want to respect those. But we also want to have the ability to find ways to tap into the genius of the communities around the park. A non-profit can engage the community in ways that is difficult for the government to do, and that is a very, very important element of advantage in the partnership.

Additionally, as a public agency, a lot of our money is appropriated by Congress in one-year allocations. So the ability to leverage money and put larger projects together was clearly an advantage of a non-profit partner, as we saw it. And let’s face it, people are skeptical about government today even under our best attempt to be good public servants — but they are able to translate their passion and commitment to a cause with a non-profit in a way that’s very difficult for them to do with a government agency.

MOORE: From my perspective, I have always respected the challenging job the National Park Service faces in operating the park on a daily basis — after all, over 20 million people visit these parklands each year. At the Association, we are not as immersed in daily operations and therefore have more time to look ahead and forecast how to best position the park and its future. We also have the advantage of volunteers who can be more objective in their views and offer unique expertise to our mission.

Another advantage we obviously gained is the positive reputation of the National Park Service. It has a wonderful public image. People love the national parks. We clearly could work from the basically good reputation of the organization and people’s associations with national parks around the country.

“A non-profit can engage the community in ways that is difficult for the government to do, and that is a very, very important element of advantage in the partnership.”

Finally, we have the opportunity for collaboration and teamwork with a federal entity — the ability to forecast where the resources are coming from, and when they are threatened. To take advantage of what the public agency can bring to the table staff-wise, resource-wise, and community relations-wise, has been fundamental to our growth as a non-profit.

Just getting on our feet, of course, was a struggle. I will always be grateful to Brian for having a good sense of delayed gratification. While we were getting our basic infrastructure together, there were many years when there was very little that we could do for the park. And Brian was able to take the long view, invest in us with his staff and his resources and wait until the day that we could give back in substantive ways.

ROGERS: Give people a sense of where you are today — the number of staff and the size of your budget, and the scale of your programs — so that they get more of a concrete sense of what we’re talking about here.

MOORE: Our staff now includes about 125 employees. We’re involved throughout the Golden Gate National Parks, helping in the front lines of visitor services and educational programs, and in many cases moving important park initiatives forward and undertaking large projects. Our annual support to the park now averages about $3.5 million a year. So, we’ve come a long way from the early days and within the next few years hope to take another step up.

O’NEILL: The Association does a lot for us: site stewardship and habitat restoration, managing our native plant nurseries, running capital campaigns, managing both in-park and off-park bookstores and visitor facilities, and running fee-based programs. They are also involved with a lot of volunteer-based programs. But probably more than anything else, they offer us their flexibility and desire and attitude to want to experiment with new delivery systems. Even though we may fail at some of those.

ROGERS: Give us a sense of how your organizations work together on a day-to-day basis. And how do you relate to one another as the leaders of the two organizations?

MOORE: Well, we have a few advantages. One is that since Brian and I have worked together for a decade now, there’s not much about one another that we don’t know. We are also in the habit of starting work at about seven in the morning, and ending work at about seven in the evening, so we tend to rely upon connecting either at the beginning of the day when things are relatively quiet, or at the end of the day when you need a little bit of encouragement and someone to put you back up on your feet.

“There were many years when there was very little that we could do for the park. And Brian was able to take the long view, invest in us with his staff and his resources and wait until the day that we could give back in substantive ways.”

As we’ve grown together as partners, our systems for partnership have changed. In the early days it was a fairly informal system. But an important ingredient was the inclusion of the Association’s board members. In the very early days we had a standing meeting every week with Brian and the chair and vice-chair of our board. That type of engagement really made the Association feel important and that our services were needed.

As both our staffs have grown, we have developed systems of liaison that are wonderfully decentralized. We have staff liaisons for a lot of our different program activities. They meet regularly. They work as fully integrated teams of both institutions. They share leadership for projects. Sometimes they give leadership away. So, on a day-to-day basis, we’re interacting constantly.

O’NEILL: During one staff meeting I mentioned that I’d really like to be out in the field more frequently. In response, a very candid and brave staff member said, “Well, Mr. Superintendent, if that’s true your calendar will reflect it.” That’s basically my philosophy now. I have taken that to heart, and learned that the things that are most important to achieving the future of the park need to get on the calendar, because the calendar certainly will fill up. And that’s the philosophy by which we try to manage our partnership.

The second thing is that we have a manager’s meeting every other week that is calendared. That means that all the senior managers from the Park Service that have a liaison with the Association meet to go over exactly where we stand on our initiatives, and to bring up any major policy issues or disconnects — or misalignments — that exist. And Greg’s board has committee meetings where we have Park Service representation.

Now, what we have found out, which I’m sure you have in working with your partners, is that it can’t be a partnership with just management. Unless the rank and file down to every single employee sees the partnership as relevant to them, you’ve got problems. So, the challenge that we’re always working on is: How do you translate a sense of “team” through communication at all levels of the organization?

ROGERS: The basic responsibility and authority for the public resource rests with the public agency. And in many situations, public agencies have been defensive about giving up any territory or authority to a public/private partnership. What had to change inside the National Park Service unit — and what did you have to change in your own style and philosophy — to make this partnership as productive as it is?

“Unless the rank and file down to every single employee sees the partnership as relevant to them, you’ve got problems.”

O’NEILL: The willingness to share control, and share responsibility. This is not a business where ego and control is going to create a successful liaison or partnership. If you’re going to have a partnership it is about sharing. It’s about being able to subvert your own ego for the benefit of the projects. So we try to take the personality out of our partnership and put back a sense of shared vision.

ROGERS: So, everything is just perfect, right? Ten years of smoothly evolving, increasingly effective and productive partnership. Describe something difficult that you’ve had to cope with and respond to. Something that challenged the amicability of the partnership or the capacity of the partnership to deliver.

O’NEILL: When you get involved in a partnership of this breadth, you have to be prepared to look at major organizational change that is necessary to redefine responsibilities and how they are executed. We have over 8,000 volunteers in our park. And if you think managing 8,000 volunteers under a traditional organizational structure is easy, it isn’t. We’ve had to completely restructure how we think about, coordinate, and partner with the Association and volunteer management.

The first issue you have to deal with is employees feeling threatened by the idea of a partnership, because in some way it’s redefining their role, or maybe even replacing them. A lot of people come to the National Park Service committed and passionate about the mission. They want to be out there getting the “warm fuzzies” by communicating to the public. When you change their job from being an interpreter giving front-line services, to a manager of others doing those services, it’s threatening. You are redefining their job. For example, we don’t hire people to clean restrooms or remove graffiti anymore. Instead, we hire a higher-level park person to manage alternative work crews, youth at-risk crews for example. So, as our partnership has grown, the Park Service has moved in many areas from being the doer to being the facilitator or the motivator, which has caused us to have to reorganize our own shop. I’ll give you our most recent war story.

We realize that people don’t visit parks just on an eight-hour basis, and that the future of our park is dependent upon how we program it at hours in which people want to experience it. A specific example is Alcatraz, where we have so many visitors that we can’t meet the demand. So, Alcatraz became our first effort to introduce an evening interpretive program, a whole different package of experiences. But in this case, rather than having the Park Service be the front-line interpreters for the evening program, we proposed that the association play that role, and the Park Service would oversee the nature of the interpretive services and the law enforcement on the island. Well, we have unions within our park, and, boy, you would have thought we’d set off a time bomb.

“The first issue you have to deal with is employees feeling threatened by the idea of a partnership, because in some way it’s redefining their role, or maybe even replacing them.”

We implemented the program a year ago last June. I lost four lives during that debate, trying to get people to understand that it should be seen as a win-win situation. However, if you believe that it is a first step toward putting yourself out of a job, you don’t necessarily see it that way.

At the end of the one-year period, all the partners — our transportation carrier, the association, ourselves and the unions — sat down to do an evaluation of the program. And you would have thought we were talking about a whole different program. I wouldn’t say it was quite a “love-in,” but everyone there acknowledged that since the new program boosted ticket sales to 98% of visitor capacity, and the public loved it, and didn’t care whose uniform was being worn — they only cared about the quality of the interpretive message — the partners came to understand the value that each contributed to the program.

“The public…didn’t care whose uniform was being worn — they only cared about the quality of the interpretive message…”

ROGERS: Let’s talk about the Presidio conversion. This was a process where the Association and its board came to make some judgements about the capacity of the Park Service as an institution to effectively manage a very challenging new resource that included 1,400 acres, and 800 buildings — 400 of which were historic. Let’s hear a little bit more about that story and how that led to legislative proposals and the Presidio Trust.

MOORE: As an association, we stretched considerably to rally to that challenge. It entailed raising close to $2 million to help the park in this endeavor, and putting a whole new staff and a national advisory committee in place to assist with the overall effort.

As the process unfolded, there were differences of opinion about the best direction to proceed, and different senses of priority, timing, and urgency. As a result, there were exceptionally tense moments but somehow we held together throughout it all. And we kept our disagreements private. As a joint team we worked out our differences behind the scenes. We had enough going on with public challenges and opponents to bring our own differences into public view.

O’NEILL: Most of you may not know that our first effort was to save the Presidio. There were a lot of members of Congress who saw this as a city of San Francisco issue. And they loved to pick on San Francisco and California back in Congress. It was made very clear to us that Congress had very little confidence in the Park Service’s ability to bring together the expertise necessary to do the financing and property management that’s required to make the Presidio self-sufficient.

“As a joint team we worked out our differences behind the scenes. We had enough going on with public challenges and opponents to bring our own differences into public view.”

They gave us a mandate that the Presidio had to be self-sufficient after the 15th year of operation. And we ended up with a new partner, designated by Congress: the Presidio Trust, which Congress felt could bring in the talent from the financing and real estate community to join in partnership with the National Park Service, who could do the more traditional park management-interpretive-education role.

And now we have a new challenge, which is how does the Park Service, working with the Association and the Presidio Trust — assure that the soul of this place as a national park is preserved, in a way that is financially feasible?

ROGERS: This is a partnership that has been ratcheted-up in scale of effectiveness one notch after another. How has that been done? For example, if you look at traditional land trust organizations, they normally grow their experience and capability and image by taking on one after another slightly larger projects — so that each project poses a bigger fundraising challenge and creates more reputation for the organization. Is that the way this partnership has been ratcheted up? Or would you characterize it differently?

MOORE: I think it’s similar. We have a unique advantage here in that unlike most non-profits, we dedicated our early attention to visitor services that were fee-based to build financial self-sustainability before we began considering contributions and other fundraising functions.

Our income — in gross dollars — last year was close to $8 million. And our contributed income was close to $4 million. When you net out the earned portion, it is just about in balance with our contributed income. This has allowed us to achieve a durability of infrastructure and staffing that is not very dependent on the changing donor marketplace, and that has been a very substantial part of our ability to ratchet-up.

The other thing that ratcheted our organization up was the prominence of the Presidio undertaking. It identified us to the community as an institution that was willing to take on something of this scale, and develop the volunteer resources needed to work with the National Park Service. We’ve garnered many, many new friends and contributors through that effort.

O’NEILL: From the very beginning we did have an ambitious vision for what the Association could be. And we knew it was going to take a decade — even under the best of circumstances — to achieve. But we carefully selected projects and initiatives that were doable, and that would establish a reputation and a positioning for the Association in the park that was critical.

The projects selected were ones that gave us the opportunity to bring in diverse components of the community and to demonstrate our ability to build capacity over time. Our first project was the restoration of the Civil War fortification at Fort Mason. And from there we wanted to get into site stewardship and habitat restoration. So we began to select individual projects that represented major directions that we wanted to move into, but were doable and would demonstrate our ability to bring in diverse expertise and community resources.

It was on that solid foundation that we’ve continued to build, step-by-step. We don’t see our job as managing within park boundaries. We believe that visitors to San Francisco ought to have a much better education and orientation to the resources here. The Association developed an educational program on the boat tours that go around the bay, providing income to the Association, and at the same time delivering a much higher-quality education to the visitor.

“We began to select individual projects that represented major directions that we wanted to move into, but were doable and would demonstrate our ability to bring in diverse expertise and community resources.”

We’ve also “branded” the park with a set of images that brings the beauty and distinctiveness of individual sites under a unifying concept. For example, if you go down to the Embarcadero, the Association has its own bookstore. At Pier 39, we have a National Park Service bookstore. If you go to a department store, you’re likely to see our product line there.

Taking our message outside the park into the community and utilizing our earned income potential and marketing program was truly a threshold change. And, as Greg said, any non-profit has to deal with earned income. So many parks have given away their earned income potential to for-profit entities when, if they’d thought a little bit differently about how to structure the nature of the relationship, their non-profit support group could have been generating revenue that could have gone back in its entirety to nurture the partnership.

ROGERS: As I said in the beginning, in many ways your partnership is more like urban parks partnerships than it is like ones in the National Park Service. But there are some characteristics of your partnership that are unique. One is long tenure in the key leadership positions: the two of you have been working together in your current positions for a full decade.

A second is your insulation from the elective political process, which city institutions don’t have. A third is being 3,000 miles from headquarters. No city institution has that luxury. How important do you think those characteristics are to your success?

MOORE: I think that these three things have been very important to us. We do, however, have to operate in a political arena — our parks are in the midst of a city. And while Brian is not reporting to the mayor or board of supervisors, these individuals certainly have opinions about the parks and how they should be taken care of. So, the need for effective liaison with those entities has been critical. And it’s one place where I think our board of trustees — with their volunteer efforts, and their positioning within the community — have been absolutely critical.

I can’t stress enough how our volunteer board and the expertise that they bring, the connections they can offer, and the help behind the scenes for me has been just phenomenal. In pro bono contributed resources alone, we’ve benefited from almost $3 or 4 million of help over the time since we’ve developed.

O’NEILL: I do enjoy the distance, but in reality we all are accountable to a whole lot of folks. And although I don’t report to the mayor here, I do have to make sure that the he is well informed, and there are not surprises with respect to what the Park Service has done.

“The future of parks in America — is dependent on our ability to mobilize a constituency that is linked to its values.”

If there’s anything that I’ve realized in my job here, it is that the future of this unit of the National Park Service — as is the future of parks in America — is dependent on our ability to mobilize a constituency that is linked to its values. And that those values are important to a diverse population who are willing to stand up and fight for them. They are willing to give of their expertise, of their time, in terms of volunteerism, and their resources.