Last summer, I started what is turning out to be a lifelong quest: to visit all of the 417 patches of this country that are overseen by National Park Service. This doesn’t just mean the 60 spots that are designated National Parks, but also all of the national battlefields, military parks, historic sites, memorials, lakeshores, and seashores overseen by the NPS.
I’ve been to the highlights, such Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Glacier. But being a completist, on a warm June afternoon, I headed up to Hyde Park, New York, home of to the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site, as well as National Historic Sites for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. I took pictures and uploaded them to Instagram, using the NPS-suggested hashtag of #findyourpark.
Almost immediately, I saw ads in my feed for Parks Project, a company that makes vintage-y national park merchandise — think raglan three quarter length shirts featuring cool logos for the big parks, “National Parks are for Lovers” bumper stickers, and throwback corduroy hats with Joshua Tree, Zion, and Yosemite stitched across them. They’re a for-profit company, but partner with NPS-related charities to do projects in the parks that have fallen into funding gaps.
I’ve been to 68 NPS sites now, and have seen these ads since the first time I used the #findyourpark hashtag. Were they in competition with the NPS? Was I taking money out of NPS pockets and giving it to someone who was only giving a portion back in exchange for me being interested in them having a cooler shirt than what I found in a gift shop?
Parks Project isn’t the only company that makes NPS gear, either. REI makes National Park-themed backpacks, shirts, patches, mugs, and water bottles, and with Brooks, trail running shoes. Outdoorsy company Pendleton makes National Park blankets, socks, quilts, pillows, hats, luggage, and dog beds. Not to be outdone, L.L. Bean sells “Find Your Park” t-shirts as well as National Park annual passes, and recently announced they’d be donating $3 million to the parks themselves. These items are made in full concert with the National Park Foundation, which is the congressionally-chartered national charity for the NPS.
Such partnerships aren’t exactly new either. “Among the oldest and most enduring partners of the NPS are our cooperating associations,” wrote Elizabeth Stern, strategic communications advisor for the National Park Service in an email. The first of these non-profit partnerships formed in 1923 with the foundation of the Yosemite Museum Association (now Yosemite Conservancy) seven years after the NPS was formed. Today there are more than 70 such 501(c)(3) organizations, and these partners “enhance visitor understanding, knowledge, and appreciation of the national parks through the services and products they provide,” Stern wrote. This can include operating stores inside parks, making park-related publications, merchandise and audiovisual programs, or supporting park education through interpretive programming like providing tours for visitors at Valley Forge National Historical Park and Antietam National Battlefield.
When it comes to for-profit companies, the NPS works with the National Park Foundation on creating licensing agreements for their relatively new secondary logo — a slight tweak on their iconic arrowhead logo, which is not licensed out — on “selected product sales,” wrote Stern. The licensing program “is designed to allow park partners, including cooperating associations and the corporate community, to offer NPS-branded items.”
Via email, REI spokesperson Courtney Gearhart told me that the outdoor retailer donates 5 percent of sales of National Park gear to NPS charities and “partnered with the National Park Foundation and made multi-million dollar contributions to support the  National Park Service Centennial.” They have also made grants to NPS friend groups, like the Washington State National Park Fund. In 2018, they are making funds available to the National Park Foundation, other National Park-related Friends groups through their Wild & Scenic Rivers Collection, which includes things like kayaks, water bottles, sandals, and shirts.
Listen to an interview with Jen A. Miller about this piece on The Outline World Dispatch.
Parks Project has been a licensee for three years, said co-founder Keith Eshelman, who is formerly of the shoe company Toms which was built around that idea of the “giving back” corporate model. “It really isn’t all about a portion of the proceeds and masking it with either a percentage of profits or a percentage of revenue. It’s a commitment,” he said. “I really view our financial contributions as a third of what our company’s doing.” It is also a business partner with the National Park Foundation on its ecommerce store and does “general engagement and ask people to reciprocate the joy that they get out of National Parks,” he said.
Eshelman declined to say how much the company gives to the National Park Foundation, but according to the National Parks Foundation’s 2017 annual report, Parks Project was a “Corporate Partner” that gave $25,000-$99,000. The report also features the names of personal donors whose contributions to the National Park Foundation exceeds $1,000; Eshelman’s name was not listed. Having said that, their website does feature a truly staggering number of contributions through a varied list of initiatives with a large range of partners.
While even writing about this gives me the warm and fuzzies about how these companies are doing what they can to help the National Parks I love so much, these efforts are far from enough to meet all of the National Park Service’s needs. The money raised is not so much a drop in the bucket, as it is a rock thrown into the Grand Canyon (which on June 1 this year increased entrance fees from $30 to $35 per vehicle). The National Park Service has had between an $11 billion and $12 billion repair backlog since 2010, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior. It’s a gap that has dovetailed with a spike in visitorship to the national parks, which had 330,882,751 visitors last year, totaling more than 1.44 billion recreational hours (up 19 million from 2016) and saw 42 parks break attendance records. And while on paper it looks like the National Park Service budget has gone up from $3.276 billion for fiscal year 2009 to $3.460 billion for fiscal year 2018, when adjusted for inflation, it’s really an 8 percent drop. The New York Times has referred to this paradox of rising crowds and shrinking funds as a “crisis” — I was in Zion National Park in Utah right around the time their reporter was, and I don’t think the pictures do justice to the massive crowds I had to work through. It was almost worse than Disneyland the week after Christmas but with fewer kids and its own beer (hey, they’ve got to pay the bills somehow).
In 2016, the National Park Service Centennial Act, which expands private-public partnerships, establish and fund a national park endowment, and provide opportunities for young Americans to volunteer in national parks all with the idea of addressing that $12 billion backlog, became the law of the land. But the most notable change it’s enacted so far? Raising the cost of the National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Senior Pass passes from $10 to $80. On July 3, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) introduced the Restore Our Parks Act, which would address the $12 billion backlog. Which sounds like a great idea! But it would be addressed by allowing energy development on federal lands, so it’s actually a pretty terrible idea.
But, as Eshelman said, it’s not just about the money. It’s about the ripple effect. “If every company were to make tons more national park products, it’s not going to do the job there,” said Eshelman of Parks Project. What he thinks will do the job is to “get out and support the national parks. Think about their future and the generational aspect — they were created 100 years ago and will they [should] last for your kids’ kids’ lifetimes.”