Back in January, when the Misadventures crew was hanging out at the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City, we spent our free time exploring the Venture Out section — where you might turn a corner and catch shoes being cobbled or sunglasses whittled. Makers, designers, pioneers, rebels, all outdoor enthusiasts. Our people! We spotted Keith Eshelman at the Parks Project and struck up a conversation about what they do. Each of their awesome products connects people to a particular place — a particular national park. They make beautiful gear inspired by some of our iconic public spaces.
In this interview, Keith shares more about the Parks Project’s mission, story, and passion for getting folks, especially young folks, to promote, preserve, and engage our national treasures.
How does a love of place and place-based relationships drive your mission?We are fortunate to be representing some of America’s most well known icons. So many people have amazing and unique experiences in these places and it’s our responsibility to create a favorite tee of someone’s favorite place. If we take it way back, the original vision was to get friends 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 day’s hard work with a cold one or two. Then, from our experience in apparel, we thought it would be cool if people could wear this cause, so the project evolved into t-shirts. 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. And, if our craft of trying to make your favorite tee of your favorite place works, then we think that’s full circle too.
Your shop has some rad products and I want to wear ALL OF THEM. Can you tell me about the design process?At the foundation of every t-shirt is a story and purpose. We will do some research in speaking with park groups or superintendents so that we understand the local lay of the land and priorities within the park. Many of them tie into habitat conservation 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 that 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.
In your focus on cultivating new generations of parks lovers, what challenges have you encountered? We have unfortunately been surprised with how hard it is to educate people on how they should be so honored to be in one of the only countries in the world where we actually “own” our parks. They are “of the people for the people.” In many other countries around the world, parks are the queen’s land or owned by the government. It’s really up to us to take ownership and ensure they are taken care of for the generations to come. And that is definitely one of the inspiring things about this project, we can celebrate their raw beauty and uniqueness while educating people about what they can and should do to promote and protect these amazing places.
Also, how can we bridge the digital and analog, find new ways to connect with the next generation. We have to create that connection — without a connection to these special places, they will fall into the wayside of not being a priority for American citizens. We all need to get engaged, vote, and, hey, wear one of our tee’s, too. It’s time everyone starts thinking about how we want to hand down the parks to the next generation — better than we found them?!
What’s it been like to start this organization and build it from the ground up?
Over the course of two years as a startup we have learned a lot about riding the crazy wave of building a business from the ground up. First comes proof of concept, then comes a sprint, sweat/tears, then infrastructure and investment. We learned about failing, and making sure that if we do, fail fast, fail hard and never give up, then do it again. We have to push the envelope and try new things. We are aiming to pioneer a new brand in unchartered territory. Combining the retail business and fashion with a public entity like the National Parks is no easy feat. Takes time, determination, and so much collaboration. Also, we learned sometimes big business opportunities might not be the best long-term strategy to grow your company. We are becoming more patient, thinking longer-term strategy, while of course staying true to our goal to fund projects in our parks. And, we will probably have a different answer for you next year as everything is still evolving!
Looking towards your goal of funding 100 projects in the next 10 years, in what areas are you most excited about expanding? There are so many amazing stories out there and the best thing about our approach is that 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 that 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!
At the end of the day, we hope to look back in 10 years at some serious impact. We will be able to say through people supporting our business, Parks Project built native plant nurseries in parks, funded animal conservation efforts, engaged countless first time volunteers who look at their relationship with the parks differently now, and that we have made a lot of friends along the way.
Any initiatives to collaborate with outdoorsy women?
We have been trying to work with Meg Haywood Sullivan and many other amazing women who are making waves in the outdoor space. We extend the invitation out to all of you — let’s make something happen! Also, we are working on some artwork with an amazing surf artist Serena Miller.
Coolest project you’re working on:
We are currently running 22 projects. One of our favorites that is close to home for us is the Muir Woods project. We have learned how many of the redwoods are having a hard time propagating in the park because non-native species are stealing “real estate” in the park. That means many redwood seeds aren’t making it to the ground because some of the Scottish bloom and other shrubs blossom earlier in the year and catch the redwood seeds before they have a chance: bummer. So, our project there is to support the nursery where they get 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 up there and got involved first hand. We would like to think that this is a way for us to make an impact for the long-term sustainability of the park.
Been to most of ‘em, but I’d like to think I haven’t found it yet. Continue the search and adventure!
Favorite product in your shop:
Muir Woods Raglan!
The three folks you would invite on an overnight hike:
Teddy Roosevelt, Sally Jewel, John Muir.
Thanks, Keith! Check out sweet swag at the Parks Project’s shop, tag them at #radparks when you snap a shot at a park you love, and get involved on some of their volunteer days.