What’s to come… “Working with more parks, supporting more projects, finding new ways to connect with more people, and blending product, education, and philanthropy with a dash of #radparks on top.”
It’s easy to enjoy the outdoors and forget about all of the work that goes into maintaining and sustaining our environment. We often appreciate natural beauty in the moment, but tend to neglect the need to preserve that beauty for the next visitor and younger generations. Keith Eshelman, the founder of Parks Project, has been on a mission to change just that – through education and conservation efforts for the national parks system. Parks Project is a volunteer-based organization that works to bring communities together through various preservation projects across the country.
This is 50 Campfires second Parks Project interview with Keith to get a better idea of the continued vision for this organization and the inspiration behind his endeavor to make a difference. We wanted to follow up and see how the support for Parks Project has grown since our last talk, including what new projects the team has been involved with.
Keith: 2016 was a big centennial year for the national park service, and I think that brought more attention and visitation to parks as a whole. Our mission is to maintain those connections folks have with parks and ensure they’re supporting issues in the parks and the conservancies that take care of them.
So happily, I can report our business tripled this year, meaning we have more products out in the world connecting people with more parks. And with this growth, we have doubled the amount of projects we are supporting and obviously are giving back more too! That was one aspect of scaling a social enterprise that always got me pumped, more sales means more projects funded. Awesome right?
50 Campfires: In what ways have your parks volunteer efforts surprised you?
Keith: Nothing makes me happier than higher than expected turnouts. We recently did a volunteer trail restoration day and thought about 15 RSVPs would come out and to our surprise we saw double that. I think there is heightened awareness across the board in the world today and that’s reflected in how we use and take care of the outdoor spaces that give us so much.
I think a second surprise is the more you know, the deeper you dive into how much work and support is needed. For instance, with our last volunteer day we were able to shore up about a mile of trail, and the Santa Monica Mountains network has about 800 miles of trail! Or when we do invasive species removal projects, you really see how out of balance some ecosystems are now. There’s LOTS of work to do folks!
50 Campfires: Have you noticed any changes in the way people interact with your brand? If so, are the changes impacting your organization in a positive way?
Keith: I think we are getting more creative contributions than we expected out of the gate. We started out trying to put a new creative spin on the old boring national park t-shirt and hoped people would get it. But over the course of this year, we have been contacted by many photographers, designers, illustrators, and other creatives who want to pitch in and lend their creativity to our cause. I’ve always loved the concept of art for parks and its something we hope to ramp up into next year. We are a very collaborative organization. This is something we aim to fuel into next year so that more folks can pitch in and join supporting the parks.
50 Campfires: How close are you to achieving your goal of funding 100 projects over the next ten years?
Keith: We are on track! And each project varies, meaning some we’ll accomplish in a matter of months, like funding a nursery in Muir Woods. Others will probably take 10 years, like getting more bear boxes in Glacier National Park. We are trying to get more data into next year so we can share an impact 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. 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 and our goal is to leave it better than we found it. If we all took that approach into our park visits, it would be amazing right?
50 Campfires: On average, are your projects funded in a timely manner or does the timetable vary depending on the park location?
Keith: Every project will vary, and we work with each individual park conservancy to get it done. Like I mentioned, some projects will hopefully turn quicker and have immediate results, like trail restoration, whereas some habitat restoration projects could take years (decades) to restore balance in an ecosystem. The other projects that support youth engagement are also more of an investment in the next generation.
I have joined some of these trips where we fund busloads of inner city kids to get out to a national park for the first time, and it’s a mind-blowing experience. If your world just consisted of an urban concrete area, 40 blocks by 40 blocks, seeing the purity of the outdoors can expand your reality. Though this project to engage more and more youth will take time, there are immediate rewards in creating a healthier society.
Having two kids, I see the importance of introducing them to pristine nature and hope everyone in this world has the ability to connect with the outdoors. It puts the world into perspective, and hopefully down the line they will support these places too because they had great experiences in them.
50 Campfires: What excites you most about the future of Parks Project?
Keith: Working with more parks, supporting more projects, finding new ways to connect with more people, and blending product, education, and philanthropy with a dash of #radparks on top. To be honest I don’t know what the future holds, but if we strive to push the limits, innovate, become best friends with all our customers, and stay true to our mission/purpose, its just going to be amazing. We are in this for the right reasons and hope the authenticity reaches everyone who is willing to consider joining the Parks Project.
50 Campfires: What are some of your favorite new products (on your website) supporting your organization right now?
Keith: I really dig our sweatshirts. We invested in a real high quality, comfortable fleece and everyone I have spoken with says they live in it now that the weather got cold. Also, we are in love with the All Parks Enamel Mug. It took a long time to get right but it was well worth it. Some of us have even colored in the parks we have visited on it so we can keep track of how many more we have to see the park system as a whole. I think products that have all the national parks on them speak to the vastness and diversity of the park system and encourage folks to get out there and see them all. Man, I could go on and on here. We try not to make anything that doesn’t pass the “awesome test,” so it’s all our favorite things really!
50 Campfires: Where can someone go to get involved and learn more about Parks Project?
Keith: We have resources on our website for folks to organize and host their own volunteer day. We know we can’t do it all on our own and really hope some of our hard work inspires others to give it a try too.