Parks Project is a new outdoor lifestyle brand with a sole purpose: save the U.S. national parks. After a weekend volunteering in the Santa Monica mountains, friends Keith Eshelman and Sevag Kazanci were struck by the challenges facing America’s underfunded and underappreciated national parks.
Inspired by their time working for social enterprise company TOMS, the two entrepreneurs set out to harness consumer power to help support some of the parks’ underfunded projects. Now having contributed over $200,000 to park partners and pairing up with 100 specialty stores, they are rolling out in REI stores nationwide this summer.
The United States is home to some of the worlds most impressive national parks. Following the creation of Yellowstone national park in the 1870s, today the country has 60 protected areas, 14 of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But as Eshelman and Kaznaci learned, the parks are facing severe underfunding and a lack of advocacy.
Both children and adults are spending less time playing outside or connecting with nature than previous generations. In particular, there is concern over youth engagement with the National Parks. The average age of visitors to Denali is 57 years. In Yellowstone, it is 54. Over the last 10 years, the number of visitors under the age of 15 has decreased by half.
Many people simply are not aware of the issues facing the parks. If they are not seeing the park, they also are not seeing its problems, the founders of Parks Project argue. As of 2017, the National Park Service (NPS) had an estimated $11.607 billion backlog of maintenance work due to budget limitations. Even for Eshelman and Kazanci, the extent of the problem came as a shock.
“Sevag and I were participating in a post-fire habitat restoration volunteer day in the Santa Monica Mountains,” says Eshelman. “During our time volunteering, the park’s staff taught us about all of the important projects that needed funding, advocacy, and support.”
That day sparked the idea of an organization that would connect the public to the parks and volunteer to help. After organizing a few volunteer days with their friends, the pair wanted to find a way for these smaller actions to translate into a larger, lasting impact. And so, Parks Project was born.
Parks Project, in particular, works to help fund some of these backlogged NPS projects through apparel sales. Living by the mantra, “leave it better than you found it,” the company also organizes volunteer days to help preserve the National Parks.
Neither Eshelman and Kazanci were new to the idea of a social enterprise. The two collectively had 11 years of experience working at TOMS and a rough idea of how to turn a small startup into a large company. Eshelman reckons that the time at TOMS both prepared and inspired them to dive headfirst into Parks Project, but it was still a risky proposition.
“Sevag and I put our career winnings on the line” he explains. “We received a small amount of financing from family and friend contributions, bought into some inventory, and went for it.” They personally paid for the brand’s first few trade shows, and from there, the products gathered traction.