A Call to Conservation: Interview with Parks Project Co-Founder Keith Eshelman

Words by Chris Zimmerman
Photos by Parks Project

From Yosemite to Yellowstone, Acadia to Mt. Rainier, America’s National Parks are experiencing a boom in visitors, filled with people who have grown tired of experiencing nature through a screen and are instead searching for an invigorating outdoor experience. But beyond the booked-up campgrounds, selfie sticks and belt-affixed bear spray canisters, people are realizing what a true treasure these areas are. Even with traffic at an all-time high, one thing they may not realize is how budget deficits are plaguing the parks, limiting conservation efforts and restricting maintenance.

Looking to capitalize on this popularity, Parks Project has found a way to not only raise awareness, encourage advocacy and focus volunteer efforts, but sell quality, Made in the USA products in the process. Between giving back a percentage of profits to fund specific conservation projects, to getting dirty with volunteer work parties, Parks Project is proving the potential of connecting people to parks at a macro level.

We talked with Parks Project co-founder, Keith Eshelman about the focus on specific projects, why a solid volunteer force will be vital to the existence of our National Parks, and why the brand’s goal of funding 100 projects and generating 100,000 volunteer hours is a good milestone.

 

Can you talk about the relationship you are building with your customers between products and conservation?

It started in 2013, in the Santa Monica Mountains where Sevag and I were doing a post-fire habitat restoration volunteer day. We had time with a park biologist and the park superintendent, and we learned a lot. Learned about all the undertakings that needed support and also advocacy for things that needed attention. That spurred the idea of trying to get more people connected to the parks and volunteering to chip in to support all the ongoing projects we had learned about. The original vision was to unite friends around volunteering in our parks so we could make a difference and support our favorite places. We got out as a group, did work, felt good about it and would celebrate after a hard day’s work with a cold one or two.

From our experience in apparel and understanding how social enterprise worked after a combined 11 years at TOMS, we thought it would be cool if people could wear this cause. So the idea evolved into products that interpreted various projects in the parks. We started reaching out to park conservancies and learned how much support was needed, and how we could really contribute. Now, we think it has come full circle because we are still driving volunteer events but using apparel as a way to tell stories that need support across all our favorite national parks.  

So, the project is really two fold, expose people to all the projects that need support, and ask people to give a shit about supporting them. If we can educate a bit, connect people to a conservancy, and one day get them to try volunteering, that’s a huge win! Our products are really tools to help make this connection, and hopefully enlighten folks on what needs to be done to preserve our park lands.

Rather than an overall giveback, specific Parks Project products give back to a specific conservation effort. Can you talk about why you decided to go with a more specific project rather than overall conservation?

Instead of giving back through a few layers of administration, we made a special deal with National Parks to directly fund projects, so the funding dollars have almost triple the effect.

How it works is we partner with organizations on the ground to get an understanding of priorities and try to find something attainable. There are so many amazing stories out there and the best thing about our approach is hopefully we can find a project, promote it, fund it, then move onto a new one. So really, we will be able to keep innovating via new projects that need our support. And we can keep learning about various interesting initiatives in the parks while helping resolve them with the support of our followers. We would like to think this is a way for us to make an impact for the long term sustainability of the park. We have looked at a lot of areas to expand as well: local parks, international parks and more!  

Tax dollars usually cover the big stuff: roads, staff and operations, but there is a lot that can’t fit in the budget that is picked up by donations and various conservancy groups. We’re not saying we will be funding the paving of a new road down Yosemite valley, but if there’s a beautiful trail that, if neglected, could close…hey, we might be able to keep that open!

At the end of the day, we hope to look back in 10 years at some serious impact and be able to say, through people supporting our business, Parks Project has built native plant nurseries in parks, funded animal conservation efforts, supported youth outreach programs and engaged countless first time volunteers who look at their relationship with the parks differently now, and have made a lot of friends along the way.

 

A lot of people don’t think about the work that goes into conservation and preservation in the outdoor areas they visit, can you talk about some of these misconceptions and how Parks Project is helping to raise awareness?

If anything, we would just like for folks to think over the long term. How are we leaving these places for the next generation? What did the previous generation do to preserve these places for us? And, recognize the reciprocity of the relationship we have with the outdoors. We get out, fuel up and get a lot from being in these places, but what do we give back to them to maintain a sustainable relationship? We’d like to help accelerate these values in the outdoor community.

 

With budgets for National Parks and public land being cut deeper and deeper, can you talk about why creating a volunteer force is so important to their continued existence?

We think parks can be looked at as a public resource that people take for granted, and it’s time to turn that around into engagement and celebration. For the past years, the budget deficit has taken a toll on staff, hours and other park operations programs while park attendance has fallen. I mean, massive deficits. Now park attendance is back on the rise and there aren’t enough resources to support the big influxes of traffic. This affects the entire system, habitat and even the surrounding economy. We can’t take the most iconic and majestic places in nature for granted. They were given to us and created through decades of hard work, and you never know what could happen if the senate were to pass legislation to make changes. It could happen!

So we obviously make products to connect people with their favorite parks, but we also encourage people to take action. We believe after getting out and volunteering just once, it can entirely flip someone’s perspective on the parks. It creates a connection, a genuine interest and long-lasting relationship. Time out in the park is very informative to help get an understanding of the situation and what we can all do to preserve these places for generations to come. We love the saying ‘healthy parks, healthy people’ and have even made a tee to support that motto. And we definitely have to vote and have a voice. We have representatives that make important choices on the future of our parks, but sometime government decisions can seem so intangible.

On a smaller level, people should get educated on leaving no trace when visiting the parks. We stand behind our mission to leave it better than we found it, so with any visit, do something that takes that into consideration. The small things add up in the end, and we often think of how amazing it would be if everyone just pitched in a little bit. Find your own way that fits into your lifestyle. This would create more progressive change, more connection to the outdoors and a better sense of community around these open spaces we can all stand up for.

 

Can you talk about one particular conservation project Parks Project helped with and why it stood out to you?

One of our favorites, that is close to home, is the Muir Woods project. I grew up right over the hill from there and have many fond memories under the towering redwoods. While engaging with the park conservancy, we learned how many redwoods are having a hard time propagating in the park because non-native species are stealing “real estate”. That means many redwood seeds aren’t making it to the ground because some of the Scottish bloom and other non-native shrubs blossom earlier in the year and catch the redwood seeds before they have a chance.

Our project at Muir Woods is to support the nursery where they get native seedlings going to plant in the park. The tee graphic has redwoods next to one another to tell that story. We also hosted a volunteer day months ago and got involved first hand. We would like to think that this is a way for us to make an impact on the long term sustainability of the park. To date, we have supported the growing and planting of just over 2,000 native plants in and around Muir Woods. I think that’s great progress, with more to come…

 

Can you talk about your ten-year goal of funding 100 projects and generating 100,000 volunteer hours? Why is this a good milestone for the brand?

We are on track! Each project’s meaning varies, some we will accomplish in a matter of months, like funding a nursery in Muir Woods, and some will probably take a couple years, like getting more bear boxes in Glacier National Park. We are trying to get more data into the back half of the year so we can share a report with our customers, because we are making great progress!

In the end, we also think it’s important to have educational products out there in the marketplace that can help customers connect with a cause. That has proven to be a big win for park conservancies. And we think this is a great milestone because it balances out the financial and physical commitment we have to park lands. So as we fund more projects, we will also have more engagement, which creates stronger advocacy.

We all, fortunately, get to bask in these outdoor spaces and maybe in the coming years we can better understand how we impact these natural habitats. Definitely leave no trace if possible. Our goal is to leave it better than you found it. If we all took that approach into our park visits, it would be amazing, right?!

 

How do you decide which parks you want to support with conservation projects? Are they some parks that need much more work than others?

It’s really a mix of our perspective crossed with demand in the marketplace. Of course there are so many Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon products out there and we have to try to up the game in that arena, but we also try to highlight some unique places like the Channel Islands, Apostle Islands and some of the lesser-known amazing places. We have worked out relationships to support about half of the National Parks, but our goal is to eventually have them all represented in our collection.

At the foundation of every product is a story and purpose. We will do some research in speaking with park groups or superintendents so we understand the local lay of the land and priorities within the park. Many of them tie into habitat conservation, youth programs or wildlife preservation. It’s been a real fun adventure to learn about the various natural ecosystems and challenges we face in preserving these places.

From there we lay out a few paragraphs for one of our graphic designers and let them translate the project into a design. We have found various designers we work with have different connections to the projects, so we try to let them work on something that resonates with them. We are also trying to expand our design collective to include more local creatives that have direct connections to the parks we work with. There is always more room for localization and improvement.

For those who are interested in volunteering but don’t know where to start, how can they get involved?

Volunteering is an invigorating experience, not like a beach cleanup . Of course we would love for you all to join us at an event we host soon, but organizations like the Sierra Club and local friends of parks groups are a great resource to check out for getting involved, too. Check out https://www.volunteer.gov for some light work and http://21csc.org if you want to get serious with it!

Thanks to Keith for talking with us and sharing Parks Project’s story. While a t-shirt isn’t a prerequisite for volunteering, it’s hard to deny the solid look and quality feel of a Parks Project shirt. In a world of increasingly divided attention, Parks Project is demonstrating the power of building a community, creating great product, and volunteering—plus, a little hard work and fresh air never hurt anybody.  

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