Thrusting out into the Pacific Ocean, Olympic National Park can feel like a lost world, with its ferny rain forests, violent surf and cloud-shrouded peaks.
But to the four women who hiked down to the sand one recent afternoon, there was an added element of strangeness: race.
“We’ve been here for two days, walking around, and I can’t think of any brown person that I’ve seen,” said Carol Cain, 42, a New Jersey resident of Dominican and Puerto Rican roots, who was zipped up tight in her hooded, dripping rain jacket.
The National Park Service knows all too well what Ms. Cain is talking about. In a soul-searching, head-scratching journey of its own, the agency that manages some of the most awe-inspiring public places is scrambling to rethink and redefine itself to the growing number of Americans who do not use the parks in the way that previous—mostly white—generations did.
Only about one in five visitors to a national park site is nonwhite, according to a 2011 University of Wyoming report commissioned by the Park Service, and only about 1 in 10 is Hispanic—a particularly lackluster embrace by the nation’s fastest-growing demographic group.
One way the service has been fighting to break through is with a program called American Latino Expeditions, which invited Ms. Cain and her three colleagues. Groups like theirs went to three parks and recreation areas this summer—participants competed for the spots, with expenses paid for mostly through corporate donations—part of a multipronged effort to turn the Park Service’s demographic battleship around.
GirlTrek, a national nonprofit group, organizes fitness-oriented park hikes for African-Americans. REI, the big recreation retailer, and Aramark, which manages lodging in some national parks, are sponsoring expeditions through the American Latino Heritage Fund of the National Park Foundation, a Congressionally chartered nonprofit group. New recruiting efforts to diversify the Park Service’s employee base—also largely white—are working with urban youth who might scoff at the idea of being a ranger in the wild, but could gravitate toward history, science or construction jobs.
New attractions are part of the mix, too. National monuments managed by the Park Service have been created in the past few years to recognize more minority figures in American history, like Cesar Chavez, the farm labor organizer, and Harriet Tubman of Underground Railroad fame.
“The future is diverse,” said Scott Welch, a spokesman for Columbia Sportswear, which provided clothing to expedition groups this summer and has been working with GirlTrek. “If you want to be a brand for the future, you’ve got to embrace that.”
But the new effort goes further, to the question of how, and how much, the parks themselves must change to attract a fundamentally different audience. Wireless access, for example—still nonexistent in much of the Park Service universe—could divide older park visitors from minorities and young people, the so-called millennial generation, who want to share the experience live in social media with their peers.
But the reality that going to a park, at least for now, means encountering mostly white people is its own potential barrier. Research by the Park Service says some members of minority groups have said they fear they would feel unwelcome.