WASHINGTON - The [lack of black] visitors issue is a pressing one for the National Park Service, which is expanding its efforts to diversify both its guests and its work force as the agency prepares to celebrate its centennial in 2016.
Studies and surveys show that visitors to the nation’s 393 national parks — there were 285.5 million of them in 2009 — are overwhelmingly non-Hispanic whites, with blacks the least likely group to visit. That reality has not changed since the 1960s, when it was first identified as an issue. The Park Service now says the problem is linked to the parks’ very survival.
“If the American public doesn’t know that we exist or doesn’t care, our mission is potentially in jeopardy,” said Jonathan B. Jarvis, who took over as director of the Park Service last year. “There’s a disconnect that needs addressing.”
The Park Service does not log attendance numbers at individual parks by race or ethnicity. But in a comprehensive survey it commissioned in 2000, only 13 percent of black respondents reported visiting a national park in the previous two years. That compared with 27 percent for Latinos, 29 percent for Asians and 36 percent for whites.
Jim Gramann, a visiting social scientist with the Park Service who is overseeing a review of a follow-up survey in 2008 and 2009 that is to be released early next year, said the gap persisted.
“The demographic face of America is not reflected in national park visitation, with a few exceptions,” Mr. Gramann said. In the large Western parks especially, he added, visitors are overwhelmingly non-Hispanic white, highly educated and affluent.
Park Service officials have identified factors like cost, travel distance and lack of information — for example, ignorance about what activities the parks offer — as barriers to visits.