Remembering Brian Boru O’Neill, Environmental Lawyer Extraordinaire 

People By Chuck Dayton

Brian Boru O’Neill.jpg

Brian O’Neill, who repeatedly represented the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and other environmental groups as a Pro Bono lawyer, was a shining example of an accomplished trial lawyer who cared passionately about the environment and put that passion to effective use in his own practice. Brian recently passed away at age 72 of ALS.

Entering practice in Minneapolis just as the fight over the 1978 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act was coming to an end, Brian immediately volunteered to successfully defend the Act against pro-motor interests.  He continued to represent Friends and others on BWCAW and Voyagers Park issues. He also loved wolves and handled wolf litigation to protect the reintroduction and maintenance of wolves in Yellowstone park.

 Rick Duncan, the Faegre lawyer who worked most closely with Brian, writes, “The cases Brian led that protected the BWCAW and held the Forest Service true to the wilderness vision of the 1978 Act included: truck portages, visitor use quotas, towboat quotas, low-level Air National Guard overflights of the wilderness, snowmobile use on the wilderness edge, and (with Chuck Dayton) representing the Minnesota environmental community in the  1990s Boundary Waters-Voyageurs National Park mediation. His many cases aimed at preserving the wolf and bald eagles benefitted species that are a critical component of that BWCAW ecosystem as well.”

Steve Snyder, chair of the legal committee for the Minnesota Sierra club when the new 1978 Boundary Waters Act needed to be defended, recalls that despite a serious back injury that required him to be transported to Duluth for medical care, Brian made a masterful (and successful) argument. Steve also recounts that “Brian brought a lawsuit challenging the DNR’s black bear hunting season because no studies had been performed to evaluate the sustainability of that species at various harvest levels.  While Brian was in the middle of that case, he took a solo canoe trip into the Boundary Waters, camping one night on Agnes Lake, south of Lac La Croix.  During the night, a bear invaded his camp.  No manner of banging on pots, yelling, or throwing sticks would detour the bear, and he became increasingly aggressive.  Ultimately, Brian had to break camp in the middle of the night and spend a cold night out on the lake. The Agnes Lake bear did not know he was harassing the trial lawyer who was trying to save his life.”

Kevin Proescholdt, an early Executive Director of the Friends, and who later became the head of Wilderness Watch writes: “Brian, and Faegre and Benson, represented Wilderness Watch on numerous cases over the years, including the outfitter cache issue in Idaho that gave rise to Wilderness Watch more than 30 years ago, and the Cumberland Island Wilderness issue that successfully ended motorized van tours through this wilderness. A force of nature, and a force for nature, Brian will be deeply missed.”

Perhaps his greatest legacy will be the example of idealistic pro-bono lawyering that Brian set for younger lawyers, particularly those who are the cream of the American law schools who typically end up at lucrative corporate firms, and often get gobbled up by the corporate practice. He believed deeply that using one’s talents for good is important to a full and successful life. He said in an interview by Law Crossings: “There’s more of a need now for people trying to make the world a better place than there was 30 years ago. You really do have to watch your soul. I went to law school to make the world a better place, as did most of my classmates. That was 1971, when that was a subject of great discussion. And I watched a lot of my classmates — and I don’t mean to be pious — drift away from why they started the journey to begin with. You really do have to watch your soul.”

As Rick Duncan notes: “His vision of lawyers as representing not just private commercial interests but also the public interest was an inspiration to a generation of lawyers at the Faegre firm—some of whom continue to practice there, others of whom have gone into full time public interest work or become professors of environmental law, teaching the next generation of lawyers the professional ethic of service that Brian embodied.” And the author recalls Brian telling a group of law students, “at the end your career, will you be satisfied with saying ‘I helped to make the Norwest Bank a great institution’?”

His steadfast mantra to encourage younger lawyers to do public interest work was, “You will do well by doing good.” That actually turned out to be true for him, since it was in part his environmental pro-bono work, in combination with his skill and tenacity, that earned him the role of lead lawyer for 40,000 victims of the Exxon Valdez oil spill litigation, in which he achieved a $5-billion dollar jury verdict.

The environmental community in Minnesota and nationally are indebted to him, for his memorable work and his role modeling of a lawyer’s life well lived.

Chuck Dayton is a retired environmental lawyer who spent much of his life working to save the natural areas he loves. He and spouse Sara Evans live most of each summer near Ely, Minnesota and spend spring and fall in the western Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. In these beautiful places, photography has become his passion and spiritual practice. Through it, he seeks to follow Mary Oliver’s advice: “Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.”

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