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Earlier this year, California-based apparel company Parks Project launched with one goal in mind: get young people more involved in the national park system. By creating a hipper version of the stale old gift shop T-shirt—and putting a portion of the proceeds toward trail work—the group is hoping to cultivate grassroots energy in service of an outdoor cause. We chatted with co-founder Sevag Kazanci about getting started, taking ownership, and promoting America’s Best Idea.
BACKPACKER: Tell me about the origins of Parks Project. How did the idea come about?
SEVAG KAZANCI: 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 days 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
BP: What are some of the specific projects that you’ve gotten involved in?
SK: 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. It’s a 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.
BP:Do you have a favorite national park to visit?
SK: Some of what we are trying to support and encourage is for folks to take the road less traveled. We all know the headliner parks that have tens of millions of visitors a year but there are some gems out there that might even be in our back yards. Like just south of Yosemite we have Sequoia National Park and if you can make it past all the tourists taking pictures of the redwoods at Muir Woods National Monument, Point Reyes is an incredible place to spend a few days too. We are actually trying to also explore some of the Canadian parks that are magical in the summertime too. Lots to see up there.
BP: Most surprising thing you’ve learned since starting?
SK: 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. Its 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.
BP:What’s the biggest threat to the national parks system, in your opinion?
SK: Well, hm, video games and cell phones?! But really, I think engaging the next generation is super important and 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, hey and wear one of our tees too!
BP:What are your goals for the rest of 2014 / early 2015?
SK: We want to continue to build this business as a way of combining our passion and career. We find this is a great way to design our lives and it will continue to get out into the parks, meet the people we want to spend time with, and do good business while supporting a cause and making a difference. Into 2015 we want to further explore how we can also support parks in other countries too. 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.