Meet the 'art rangers' trying to save national parks

As funding cuts and a changing climate threaten America's parks, two friends are working to protect them one photo at a time.

Oscar Nilsson and Alex Tatem are trying to save America's national parks—one photo at a time.

Nilsson and Tatem run the Art Rangers, a nonprofit online art gallery that sells national park-inspired works of art, with 100 percent of the proceeds going toward the National Park Foundation, the official charity of the National Park Service.

“At its core, it’s artists using their art to help protect the parks, whether it’s photography, sculpture, oil painting, music, or whatever it is,” Nilsson says. “Anything really that has some kind of inspiration drawn from the national parks—we’re allowing those people to give back to the parks using their art.”

Artists around the world can submit their park-inspired art online, with the selected works added to the Art Rangers’ gallery.

The nonprofit doesn’t specify where funds go or how they’re used—that’s best left to the National Parks Foundation, Nilsson says—but the project does offer a new way to give back. Since starting in July 2017, the Art Rangers have already surpassed the five-figure mark in fundraising.

“We’re trying to tell the more aspirational stories and show people and artists that have used the outdoors to turn their life around or turn their passions into a living,” he says. “There’s so many nonprofits out there that do a really good job when it comes to conservation and knowing where assets will best fit, so what we’re trying to do is act as the bridge between the artists and the conservation efforts.”

Nilsson is a professional photographer and advertising creative and Tatem is founder of promotion company Escape the Routine. The two conceived the project during a “San Francisco at Midnight” pop-up gallery show they produced together two years ago.

Realizing how much of their creative drive stems from America's parks, they wanted a way to give back.

In Nilsson’s case, his decision to pursue photography stems directly from the parks. Nilsson remembers being in awe of the landscapes around him after moving to California from Sweden in 2013.

Yosemite was one of the first national parks I went to. I remember the first time I was out there and I really felt the urge to capture all the beauty and share my experiences with people from back home and at work,” he said. “Since I picked up a camera and started doing that, I went full force and that completely transitioned my own career. I feel like it all kind of stems from my first experience with the national parks out here.”

Tatem says the initial response was a welcome surprise: They received hundreds of photos in the first few months. And in June, they sold out 400 tickets to the Art Rangers launch party in San Francisco.

“We got a couple hundred submissions right off the bat and we were able to put up the Art Rangers website with amazing photos,” Tatem says. “I think everyone really liked the concept of, ‘Hey, this is something that I’m inspired by and I’m able to give back.’ It was kind of a no-brainer for photographers being able to donate prints that they’ve taken from these trips to protect that land.”

Tatem says the project’s focus is now shifting from getting the ball rolling to gaining more exposure. He says more events like the San Francisco show will be popping up soon, with the goal of bringing the parks to towns and cities across the country.

Neither Tatem nor Nilsson are shy about their aspirations for the project.

“I really think the possibilities are endless,” Tatem said. “This younger generation of people who are living for experiences, people who are buying vans and going out, people who are living for these adventures—I think this project speaks to them. Honestly, we’re hoping to work on this for 15 to 20 years and see where it can go. It could be a pretty big organization that can make a dent.”

Daniel McKay is a writer and photographer based in Montana. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @danielcmckay.