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His Mother's Son

Alan O'Neill
Jeff Scheid
Jeff Scheid Photography

An annual family road trip catalyzed Alan O’Neill’s life of service

In the summer of 1946, twin four-year-old brothers from the outskirts of Washington, D.C., went on their first cross-country camping trip with their mother in her station wagon. For more than 5,000 miles, she did all the driving, setup, cooking, and cleanup, stopping every night to camp on public lands in state and national parks.

“(My mom) was a very liberated woman for her times, and she had a love affair with the American West,” Alan O’Neill says, fondly. “We were lower-middle class and didn’t have a lot of disposable income. My dad had to stay home to work and wasn’t a camper anyway, so she did it alone. Every 10 days or so, we splurged on a motel.”

In 2023, O’Neill won the Nevada Conservation League’s Harry Reid Lifetime Achievement Award for his 56 years of public lands service. This year, he was one of three people who received the National Parks Conservation Association’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas Citizen Conservationist of the Year award, which honors those who go to great lengths to advocate for the protection or expansion of the National Park System. O’Neill credits his mother, Virginia O’Neill, for these achievements.

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“She had this incredible lust for living and adventure,” he says, “and she instilled that in us.”

The trio repeated their summer road-trip ritual every year until Alan and his brother, Brian O’Neill, went away to college. They usually made their final stop somewhere in California, Oregon, or Nevada, before heading home. “My brother Brian and I were extremely close,” Alan O’Neill says. “We had our own language. We both became geography majors at the University of Maryland — which absolutely came from the trips out West.”

The brothers worked at the Department of the Interior after college, at an exciting time in conservation. Redwood National Park and North Cascades National Park were established their first year, and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, along with many other environmental initiatives, were passed at the beginning of their careers, cementing their dedication to preservation.

But it was the Mojave Desert that would catch Alan’s interest and never let go. After working as the assistant superintendent at Glacier National Park, he transferred to Lake Mead in 1987, intrigued, he says, by the million-and-a-half-acre park. Planning to be here for only a few years, he settled into Nevada, and ended up serving as Lake Mead National Recreation Area’s superintendent from 1987 to 2000. He never left the area, despite other opportunities.

“I would have considered myself more of a mountain person before living in the desert, but I really enjoyed Las Vegas,” O’Neill says. “I had access to the urban attractions but so much nature close by.”

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Hiking around the desert, he says, he discovered natural springs and interesting ecotones, feeding his sense of discovery. After his superintendent position, he spent the next 10 years as the founder and executive director of the Outside Las Vegas Foundation, now called Get Outdoors Nevada. Currently, O’Neill focuses his efforts on volunteer work, including on the boards of both Friends of Sloan Canyon and Friends of Avi Kwa Ame National Monument.

He counts his four years working with the diverse coalition that pushed for Avi Kwa Ame’s national monument designation among his dearest projects. “I find sacred areas everywhere I travel, but nothing compares to Avi Kwa Ame,” he says. “If that area had gotten disrupted with industrial development, it would have been tragic.” The national monument designation brings him hope, he adds.

“I first met Alan in 2021, and he became a huge mentor to me. It was clear that he had made a lifelong commitment to protecting this landscape and fulfilling his word to the tribes he first worked with,” says Kim Garrison-Means of Friends of Avi Kwa Ame. “Seeing how he uses his skill
set to be an advocate has inspired me to use my own. The work didn’t end at the monument designation. It has just begun. The resources this land needs to function as a national monument are huge."

O’Neill also weighs in on other development projects threatening critical landscapes. He helped get the Tule Springs Fossil Beds and Gold Butte National Monuments protected as well. Today, you can find him supporting the East Las Vegas National Monument proposal, covering a 32,618-acre area that includes Frenchman Mountain, Rainbow Gardens, and the Great Unconformity.

In Eastern Nevada, near Ely, O’Neill is advocating for the Swamp Cedars Shoshone site, Bahsahwahbee. Giant cedar trees grow there at a lower elevation than normal, baffling ecologists. The Shoshone people have occupied this region for thousands of years, and it is the site of brutal massacres of their people. Tribal leaders are fighting for a national monument to honor and protect the area.

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Returning to the subject of his mom’s legacy, O’Neill says he believes her dedication to taking her kids on long road trips set the trajectory of his life.

“We were hard to get through to, but when we were around nine we went to a Yellowstone campfire program and declared to our mom that we would be the director of the National Park Service and secretary of the Interior one day! She just laughed,” he says. “It was remarkable for kids from our urban environment to come out here. The basketball court and baseball field were what we had. But my mom talked about how important it was to protect the land. If we didn’t do it, we would lose it.”