Project raises $2.5M for national parks via Marin Independent Journal

Keith Eshelman, who grew up in Mill Valley, co-founded the company that turns merchandise sales into restoration funds for treasured U.S. landmarks.

Marin roots: Project raises $2.5M for national parks — Marin Independent Journal

Visitors stroll through redwoods at Muir Woods National Monument on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)Parks Project shirts hang at the Muir Woods National Monument gift shop on Friday, May 27, 2022. The Parks Project was co-founded by Keith Eshelman, who grew up in Mill Valley. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)Muir Woods visitors eat outside the Muir Woods Trading Co. on Friday, Jan, 27, 2017. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)Parks Project merchandise, including camp chairs and enamelware, are displayed at Proof Lab in Mill Valley on Friday, May 27, 2022. The Parks Project was co-founded by Keith Eshelman, who grew up in Mill Valley. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

Growing up in his hometown of Mill Valley, Keith Eshelman was no stranger to the bounty of national and state parkland in his backyard — whether it was mountain biking on Mount Tamalpais or surfing at Fort Cronkhite in the Marin Headlands. But he said it was a trip to Big Sur later in his life as a married man and new father that brought the full realization of how years of underfunding and neglect were taking their toll on America’s cherished landscapes. The trail closures and degraded state of the parks were enough to convince him and his business partner to give up a steady full-time job at a shoe company to co-found the Parks Project in 2014 to raise funds for park restoration projects throughout the country. 

Keith Eshelman poses for a photo during a volunteer day at Yosemite National Park in Mariposa County in 2018. (Provided by Keith Eshelman)

Keith Eshelman participates in a volunteer event Yosemite National Park in Mariposa County in 2018. (Provided by Keith Eshelman)

“There was a sense of generations that set in,” Eshelman said. “We received our parks in a certain condition. What is it going to look like when my generation hands it down to the next? I later learned a lot of those trails that I hike on are maintained by volunteers, so that was my catalyst moment to get involved in parks.” The Parks Project is best known for its line of apparel themed after national parks throughout the country. But Eshelman said the Parks Project initially began and still continues as a volunteer organizer for restoration projects such as clearing trails or funding a plant nursery for habitat restoration at Muir Woods National Monument, Muir Beach and surrounding areas. Eventually, the Parks Project tapped into Eshelman’s experience working at various clothing companies to launch a line of more stylized National Park apparel and merchandise. A third of the profits is donated to organizations and nonprofits such as the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, with more than $2.5 million having been raised for more than 50 organizations since 2016. “We know parks want more volunteers, want more exposure of these projects, they want more donations and engagement in the next generation,” Eshelman said. “We said we can sell products that can fund a project in a park.” “You couldn’t really find many national parks products outside of parks, and I think we made a better product,” he said. “We tried to make a cool product that would last longer and not just be a gift shop item that was an impulse buy and you never use it again.” In the company’s humble beginnings, Eshelman said, he decided to focus on the California parks he knew and cherished — Point Reyes National Seashore, Muir Woods and Joshua Tree — but has since been expanding to parks throughout America. The first store to carry Parks Project apparel was Proof Lab in Mill Valley, which continues to sell it. Eshelman said the company’s break came in 2016 when it was able to run the whole merchandising for the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service. The company has since expanded its reach, with customers able to find its apparel at larger retailers such as REI and in park gift shops. “As we’ve grown, so have the donations,” Eshelman said. “We started out with some projects in Joshua Tree where we were funding the nursery in the park. Now we’re supporting some of their research efforts, and that’s some of where I’d like to go. Hopefully, the projects will change and tell new and interesting stories.” Mia Monroe, a former superintendent at Muir Woods, said any time a visitor pays a park fee, makes a reservation or purchases a gift at the visitor center, that funding goes directly back to the park. “It’s wonderful that there is that link that people can see by this and it is immediately transformed into restoration work or a new boardwalk or whatever it is,” Monroe said. The National Park Service has more than 420 sites throughout the country. It has long been underfunded by the federal government, especially over the last decade, said John Gardner, director of budget and appropriations at the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit parks advocacy group. As a result, the park service is down by about 3,000 positions, from rangers to interpreters to historians, and has a backlog of nearly $22 billion in deferred maintenance, Gardner said. The lack of funding and staff, combined with a boom in park visitation since 2016, has strained park managers and staff. “What that has meant is that you have things like trail crews who are out maintaining bathrooms and changing the toilet paper,” Gardner said. “You’ve got resource specialists who instead of design resource or climate work, they’re out there helping park cars. They’re also short-staffed to do management planning or visitor plans to do what is strategic ways to figure out how to accommodate people.” [related_articles location=”left” show_article_date=”false” article_type=”automatic-primary-tag”] In recent years, however, Congress has passed several large funding bills to begin addressing the backlog. The Great American Outdoors Act of 2020 provides $9.5 billion over five years to repair roads, restrooms, trails and campgrounds at national parks. While Gardner said the bill provides a huge amount of funding, the backlog of work continues to grow with each year. Efforts are beginning in Congress to reauthorize the legislation and funding for another five years. “When you add all that up you still have facilities deteriorating,” Gardner said. “You put in a new water heater, your roof is still degrading. Across the road you may have some sketchy utility system. This is kind of the realization that’s becoming increasingly clear to Congress and the park service, that a lot more is needed.” The $1 trillion infrastructure bill will also provide funding for projects such as roads, bridges and tunnels along with shuttle service and cleanup of abandoned oil and gas wells next to parks, Gardner said. President Joe Biden’s budget proposal earlier this year also called for a 10% increase, or about $342 million, to the National Park Service to fill 1,500 vacant positions. “The recent successes with the Great American Outdoors Act and the infrastructure bill highlight the great and needed work that can be done with a bipartisan congressional commitment to our parks,” Gardner said. “Given the continuing disrepair, skyrocketing visitation, worrisome impacts, rampant understaffing and overdue needs to address climate, we hope that the Congress will continue to look at the importance of providing robust funding in future bills.”

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