Longtime park chief to retire

Teresa Mathew
John Dell'Osso spent his entire career with the National Park Service at the Point Reyes National Seashore, where he took part in countless efforts and helped forge compromise among differing interests. Of the tension between some environmentalists and ranchers within the park, he said, “I don’t see this anymore as a battle, ranchers on one side and environmentalists on the other." However, he added, "I think if the divides continue to widen, that would trouble me.”  
03/07/2019

For nearly four decades, John Dell’Osso has been an integral part of the Point Reyes National Seashore. As the park’s chief of interpretation and resource education, he helps educate the public about the seashore, whether through social media, the press or interpretive materials. In his 36 years at Point Reyes, he has had a hand in countless efforts, from organizing the annual Christmas bird count to acting as a community liaison to helping conserve lands along Tomales Bay. But at the end of March, Mr. Dell’Osso’s tenure will draw to a close.

The park has not yet hired anyone to replace him, but it will likely bring on an interim official until it chooses a permanent replacement. The position, Mr. Dell’Osso said, is quite sought after. 

“I won’t say I’ve had death threats over the years, but I have had a lot of people ask, ‘When are you going to retire?’” he laughed. 

Mr. Dell’Osso will not lack for things to do in his retirement. In Cotati, where he lives, he serves as the town’s appointed mayor. He has two years left on his city council term, a position he has held for over a decade, and he sits on several countywide committees and commissions, including the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. 

For Mr. Dell’Osso, said his colleague John Golda, “It’s all about the community, and being a part of it. And that’s true over on the other side of the hill where he lives, with the city council and his family, and on this side of the hill.” 

Mr. Dell’Osso is a child of the North Bay, born in San Francisco to Italian immigrants. His father was a chef who owned of a string of restaurants, including one called Dell’Osso’s, in the 1960s. When Mr. Dell’Osso was still a child, his parents moved to the Petaluma area to run a restaurant called the Green Mill. 

As a young man he decided to forgo the culinary arts, and he was a junior at the University of California, Davis when he took part in an environmental education program for local schoolchildren. “I don’t know if I wanted to do it at the time,” he admitted. “It was an opportunity, and I thought ‘Let’s give this a try.’ I had no career goals. This gave me a focus and I absolutely fell in love with it.”

He was already in love with the outdoors. An avid birdwatcher enthralled with nature’s diversity, he marveled at birds’ adaptability and loved the thrill of looking for and identifying them.  

At the end of his junior year, Mr. Dell’Osso turned down a Sacramento-based offer with California State Parks (“I hate the sun, chiefly,” he explained) to volunteer three days a week at the Point Reyes National Seashore. To make ends meet, he worked nights at his parents’ restaurant. 

At Point Reyes, each of his three days was devoted to a different location—the Bear Valley Visitor Center; Kule Loklo, the recreated Coast Miwok village; and the park’s northern district. It gave him “a real exposure to diversity here in the seashore,” he said. 

A month before graduation, Mr. Dell’Osso was hired for a temporary interpretation position at Point Reyes. Typically, park service staff move from one temporary position to another until they can work their way up the ladder. Accordingly, near the end of his contract, he accepted a similar post at Olympic National Park in Washington State. 

But shortly before moving up the coast, he received an offer for a permanent job in the seashore. “It was a tough choice because it was administrative work—not interpretive work,” he said. “There was this choice of, ‘I can stay in interpretation and get more skills’ or ‘Wow, a permanent job, those don’t come along that often!’” Recognizing his love for both family in the area and the seashore, he decided to accept. 

Mr. Dell’Osso worked as an administrator before he was able to step into the interpretive division, where he has been for the last two decades. He has left the park occasionally, once to manage a cluster of three parks in the East Bay—the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez, the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site in Danville and the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial in Concord for a few months—through a park service program. 

He also served as interim superintendent of the seashore during the transition between former park superintendent Don Neubacher and Cicely Muldoon.

Over the course of his time at Point Reyes, Mr. Dell’Osso has seen the Bear Valley Visitor Center transform “from this little beach house by the red barn to this 7,000-square-foot facility.” He is proud of the way the park has “gotten better at making things universally accessible to people with visual impairments, hearing impairments and cognitive disabilities,” he said.  

The ongoing lighthouse renovation project, in which Mr. Dell’Osso has had a hand, goes beyond the restoration of the tower and Fresnel lens to include things like tactile models, open captioning on videos and signs with large-print format. He is proud of his role in land protection, having worked with agencies and landowners in West Marin—particularly those along the Tomales Bay shoreline—to secure land and ensure that it remains undeveloped.

But the park service’s mission, Mr. Dell’Osso said, is the preservation of resources for future generations, including what he called “human resources—things like ranching that do go on in the park. What makes this place incredibly unique is this abundance of both of those resources. And I would say for the most part it’s working.” 

Mr. Dell’Osso has overseen some fractious moments in park history, particularly between environmentalists and ranchers. Working as a liaison between various West Marin groups, he has tried his best to honor each position while forging compromises. 

“He’s a consummate professional,” said Frank Borodic, a member of the West Marin Chamber of Commerce and an inn owner in Olema. “Over the years there have been hot issues, and he has always handled himself well and represented the park well. I always believe he’s a straight shooter. He definitely considers the community with anything regarding the park.” 

Ms. Muldoon, who praised the investment Mr. Dell’Osso has put into building connections within the community, said she had heard about him before she arrived at the park in 2010. 

“He’s one of those guys people know in the park service,” she said. “He’s really well-liked everywhere; he’s so good-natured. He’s the first to volunteer to do cool things. [He was] the force behind us doing a naturalization ceremony every year… and has really worked hard in the last number of years on accessibility in displays and facilities to be accessible for people with all abilities. He really helped Point Reyes pioneer some of that stuff.” 

There are a host of climate change-related challenges facing the park: the growing severity of winter storms, the erosion of beach habitat, other impacts from sea-level rise. “I think we can’t ignore that stuff,” Mr. Dell’Osso said. 

He tears up when he talks about what he will miss most about the job: his staff. “I think it’s a different breed of people that work for these agencies,” he said. “It’s a real passion and dedication for what we do.” 

When Melanie Gunn, the park’s outreach coordinator, started working with Mr. Dell’Osso a decade ago, she learned quickly that he was the person to turn to for information on anything from ranch history to park documents. “He has such an institutional knowledge, and just has a great sort of friendly way about him,” she said.

One of her favorite memories of Mr. Dell’Osso was seeing him in his element during the park’s eighth annual Christmas Bird Count, teaching kids about bird calls and habitats. Though Ms. Gunn said that everyone at the park is “so psyched” for Mr. Dell’Osso’s approaching leisure time, she acknowledged that “it’s going to be a big loss to have him retire.” 

Mr. Golda, who has worked with Mr. Dell’Osso for 20 years as an interpretive park ranger, said he could not think of anything he has worked on that Mr. Dell’Osso has not also been a part of. “Early in his career he worked with facilities, budgeting, personnel stuff,” Mr. Golda said. “So more than just the educational side that we deal with, he always knew how those other pieces tied in to how the park operates and how it works.”

Under Mr. Dell’Osso’s tenure, Mr. Golda added, “this park has won more awards for our publications and exhibit design—and these are awards from professional awards interpreters—than any other national park site. It’s something I’ll always take away from this place.”

He added, “We’re going to miss him a lot. I thought it was never going to happen, and now that we’re here, it’s like, ‘Oh, dang!’” 

Mr. Dell’Osso speaks of his job with deep fondness. “I’d be happy to work 10 more years, honestly—I love what I do,” he said. “I’ve been a part of a lot of spectacular things that have happened here in the park.” That being said, he added, “It’s always time to get fresh perspectives, and for the old regime to step aside.”