A New Role for 30–Year Veteran O’Neill
New York Coastlines, Spring 2011

As New York Sea Grant celebrates its 40 years, we say good luck to NYSG’s longtime invasive species “guru” Chuck O’Neill as he transitions from New York Sea Grant to Cornell Cooperative Extension. Says O’Neill,

“It’s been an interesting 30 years with NYSG. Although, I’ve seen a lot of changes, we’ve not changed our extension philosophy, only the way we deliver information. We still go to our audiences with solid, science-based information to help them make their own informed decisions, not make decisions for them.”

In his new role as Coordinator of Extension Invasive Species Programs, O’Neill directs the New York Invasive Species Clearinghouse (NYIS.INFO) and coordinates the Cornell Cooperative Extension Statewide Invasive Species Extension Program, which includes supervising county-based regional invasive species educators as well ensuring that aquatic invasive species outreach remains an integral part of New York Sea Grant Extension’s overall programming.

O’Neill, a geologist by training, started with New York Sea Grant working on shoreline erosion and lake level education programs in the western counties bordering Lake Ontario. “But then in the 1980s came a paradigm shift in our extension program. We began to see thematic specialists in the Great Lakes—extension educators working specifically with researchers in their areas of study. This focus helped our extension program to shine with expertise.”

The rapid succession of aquatic invasive species into the Great Lakes provided O’Neill with the opportunity to refocus and evolve into an internationally known invasive species “expert.” As a coastal geologist, O’Neill had worked closely with coastal engineers on the siting of bridges and dwellings as well as with the operators of drinking water and power plants on water intake issues. Then in 1989 along came a new invasive—zebra mussels—which foul intake pipes and cause millions in damage. O’Neill had the background and could talk the “lingo” of plant managers about the mitigation of problems caused by what the New York Times called “those pesky mussels.”

He and NYSG’s fisheries specialist Dave MacNeill knew that the zebra mussel invasion was going to be the next big issue in the Great Lakes. They got squarely in front of it, brought in researchers and traveled throughout New York making facility operators aware of the impending problem; they soon carried that message nationally. O’Neill became the director of The Zebra Mussel Clearinghouse, a repository for research on this issue originally funded by utilities, then expanded it to all aquatic invasive species when it became Sea Grant’s National Aquatic Invasive Species Clearinghouse. When O’Neill received queries about plants growing along streams, too, he expanded the site to terrestrial as well as aquatic invasives. Thus began the NY Invasive Species Clearinghouse and its Web site NYIS.INFO.

“These invasive species outreach projects have been a long time in the making,” says O’Neill. “You can count on NYSG Extension and Cornell Cooperative Extension becoming the portals through which the public can find what they need to know about invasive species.”

— Barbara A. Branca

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