Ben Kieffner had never set foot in a U.S. national park – until he and his wife jumped headfirst into a two-month national parks road trip for their honeymoon. “We had eight weeks to basically live in the back of my truck, and we traveled West to all the big parks for the first time,” Kieffner recalls. “People thought we were crazy.”

That road trip stuck with him as Kieffner began working in investment banking and his wife attended medical school in Kentucky. A few years later, he joined his wife’s two brothers – Brian Stowers and Sean Stowers – to start a T-shirt company promoting national parks, which included a special focus: donating 4% of proceeds to national parks and public lands.

A display of Wild Tribute T-shirts featuring the California State flag, which has a grizzly bear with the words California Republic underneath it.

Wild Tribute’s Impact

When they founded Wild Tribute, Kieffner thought of it as a fun side gig that also supported something he cared about. But the labor of love grew in unexpected ways. “We got a lucky break, and we started selling some product into the national parks themselves,” Kieffner says. “That passion project turned into a business.”

Now, Kieffner and his wife live in Utah, and Wild Tribute T-shirts, stickers, Christmas ornaments and other gear can be found in national and state parks across the country. The merchandise is typically sold in park gift shops, where profits are invested back in the parks. That’s on top of the 4% of profits that the company donates to each park where the items are sold. To date, the company has donated over $2 million to support not only parks but also forests and oceans.

Wild Tribute partners use the donated funds for things like infrastructure maintenance, educational and conservation programs, improving access for underserved groups and expansion of protected lands.

At this point, the company has developed a following. Tourists show up at gift shops seeking Wild Tribute products and buy designs unique to the parks they visit on vacation. “We’re part of the park experience now. They’re looking for a product and collecting it from park to park,” Kieffner says.

Key to their success, Kieffner says, are designs and graphics inspired by their own visits and passion for the parks where they sell merchandise. Many are only available in the parks they represent and cannot be ordered online.

One popular Wild Tribute design features a bus with images that change depending upon the theme. For instance, a California state road trip T-shirt features the state flag wrapped on the outside of the bus, while a view inside the open door showcases the Eastern Sierras. A similar T-shirt for Colorado features the Maroon Bells, a protected wilderness area known for its two bell-shaped mountain peaks.

Iconic Dog Design

The company’s most popular image, says co-founder and president Brian Stowers of San Diego, is of Stowers’ beloved late golden retriever, Maximus, wearing aviator sunglasses. Reflected in the sunglasses’ lenses are designs featuring mountains, rivers, hiking trails and other wilderness scenes, and his bandana also changes depending on the locale. In Texas, for example, the bandana features the Texas state flag.

“He was my best friend and, lo and behold, it just makes sense that his image has become our most popular-selling design of all time,” Stowers says.

As the head of the company’s creative team, Stowers believes their images resonate with park visitors because he and Kieffner have experienced all the parks where Wild Tribute sells gear. They know the gut-dropping feeling of awe when a first-time visitor turns the corner into Yosemite Valley and glimpses Half Dome for the first time. They’ve witnessed the sun setting behind Bass Harbor Head Light Station in Maine’s Acadia National Park.

“The way Ben and I are looking at it is ‘what’s cool in the park and what’s going to look cool on a T-shirt?’ When you’ve been in these parks, you know what people want because you just did it,” Stowers says.

A dog is jumping up and catching a toy in its mouth. A male, who is wearing a Wild Tribute cap and tee, is kneeling in front of the dog and reaching out to it, smiling.

Wild Tribute Partnerships

Erin O’Brien, retail director for the Grand Teton Association (a nonprofit partner of Grand Teton National Park), cemented Wild Tribute’s first partnership with a national park. What started as a single design on a T-shirt in the association’s shop has expanded to 15 different designs on an array of merchandise.

Funds from the sale of Wild Tribute products help pay for things like interpreting services for visitors, education efforts and elk-tracking collars.

O’Brien explains that when park visitors buy T-shirts and other souvenirs, the impact extends beyond the proceeds from that initial sale. When the association needs to raise money or support legislation related to parks, they can turn to past visitors. “They might look at their sweatshirt and think, ‘That was so special, I want to give back,’” O’Brien says.

Wild Tribute also collaborates with Subaru for their Subaru Gear product line, featuring wilderness-inspired caps, long- and short-sleeved tees, hoodies and dog ornaments. Four percent of the profits from those sales are also donated to help protect wild and historic places in the U.S.

Inspiring others to give back helps bring the mission of Wild Tribute full circle. “We care about the parks, the forests, the oceans, the planet,” Stowers says. “We’re very fortunate, as Americans, to have all this protected public space that any of us get to use.”