Matthew Ryan Williams / The New York Times
Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013 | 2 a.m.
LA PUSH, Wash. — Thrusting out into the Pacific Ocean, Olympic National Park can feel like a lost world, with its verdant 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 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 previous — mostly white — generations did.
Only about 1 in 5 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 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.
“We know that if we get them there, it can be transformative,” Jonathan Jarvis, the Park Service’s director, said. A single positive park visit, he said, can create a lifelong pattern.
Easy to say, harder to achieve, Jarvis admitted. But the agency, in looking for a path forward, has also stumbled onto an unlikely team of allies — from outdoor outfitters to health and fitness advocates — all focused on the same thing: encouraging, supplying or simply understanding the young minority market.
GirlTrek, a national nonprofit group, organizes fitness-oriented park hikes for blacks. REI, the big recreation retailer, and Aramark, which manages lodging in some national parks, are sponsoring expeditions through the American Latino Heritage Fund, a unit 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 youths 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 effort to diversify also touches some deep cultural grooves in American life that may not be as quick to change as a moisture-wicking outdoor shirt.
Many white Americans who grew up going to the parks had towering figures of outdoor history — not to mention family tradition — blazing the trail as examples. And those examples, like Daniel Boone and the fur trappers of the Old West, tended to be white.
The idea of roughing it in a tent, however, can feel to some people like going backward, said Cain, a first-generation American who said the stories in her family about escaping the hard rural life still resonate.
Chelle Roberts, 40, who was on the Olympic Park expedition with her sister, Crystal, 33, co-authors of the blog BrownGirlsFly, said there was also simply more of an appetite for vacations in cushy surroundings. “People want a lot of things we associate with modern luxury,” she said.
The Park Service has allied with private interests before, in survival or strategy. At the agency’s founding in 1916, the idea of having national parks at all was new and had to be introduced and sold. Art was a tool then, with majestic landscape works by Albert Bierstadt and other painters widely reproduced in pushing the notion that natural majesty was of value.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the automobile industry became a partner, when the Park Service went after World War II veterans, who were furiously raising baby boom families. Advertising campaigns of the time, like “See the USA in Your Chevrolet,” linked the call of the open road to the appeal of outdoor adventure.
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 who want to share the experience live in social media.
“Boomers maybe want to get away, and millennials want to be connected; that changes how you use the space,” said Laura Swapp, REI’s director of diversity and inclusion. Music events could be another generational dividing line — peace and quiet versus entertainment — but would also draw the demographic the Park Service is after, Swapp said.
But the reality that going to a park means encountering mostly white people is, at least for now, its own potential barrier. Research by the Park Service says some members of minority groups have said they fear they would feel unwelcome.
Cain said she intended to write about that sense of isolation in her blog, GirlGoneTravel. “You’re going to notice it,” she said. “Don’t let it be distracting.”