Take a look around your favorite national park and you'll notice a uniformity in your fellow visitors that is not representative of the American population. The average park visitor is overwhelmingly older (50-plus) and white. The National Park Service is doing its best to appeal to a younger and more ethnically diverse audience, but are those efforts too little, too late?

Last year brought a record number of visitors to the national parks — 292.8 million to be exact. But a vast majority of those visitors were white and aging. The most recent NPS survey of visitors, conducted in 2008-2009 and released in 2012, found that 22 percent of visitors were minorities, though they make up some 37 percent of the population. "Those U.S. residents who could name a unit of the National Park System they had visited in the two years before the survey were disproportionately white and non-Hispanic," the report concluded. The report also noted that those percentages have hardly budged since the last visitor survey by the NPS in 2000.

Park service leaders are aware of the issue and are taking steps to get more visitors through the park gates. On Aug. 25, 2015, for example, admission is free to all national parks in celebrating of the park service's 99th birthday.

"The National Park Service's 99th birthday is an opportunity to reflect on and celebrate the role of national parks in the American story," National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis said in a statement. "And it's also a time to look ahead to our centennial year, and the next 100 years. These national treasures belong to all of us, and we want everyone — especially the next generation of park visitors, supporters and advocates — to discover and connect with their national parks."

Why do some groups visit national parks while others don't? When survey respondents were asked why they don't visit NPS sites more often, Hispanic and African Americans respondents both cited high cost and transportation issues as the main barriers. African Americans also noted that they simply did not know much about the parks and what they could do there. In addition, both African American and Hispanic visitors were more likely than non-Hispanic whites to find NPS sites unsafe or unpleasant to visit.

When asked about the lack of diversity within the national parks, park representative Linda Friar told me that "a general description of our visitor is complicated," as the service maintains 408 different sites around the country including parks, battlefields, historical sites, lake shores, monuments and memorials, and seashores. Each type of site attracts a different type of visitor, Friar noted, so it's impossible to generalize.

tourists photographing bison at Yellowstone National ParkA whopping 96 percent of the visitors who go to Yellowstone to see the bison and watch Old Faithful erupt are white. (Photo: Wollertz/Shutterstock)
But take a look at the visitor surveys conducted at different park units and the results show that in almost every park site, park service visitors are white — very white. Here's a quick sample of park service sites and the percentage of visitors who identified themselves as white in 2012 surveys:

These are NPS sites located in Pennsylvania, California, Virginia, South Carolina, Colorado, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. They are parks, memorials, battlefields, rivers, historic sites and recreation areas. And their visitation is almost exclusively white.

The NPS is not blind to its diversity problem. On Aug. 25, 1916, Congress established the National Park Service with the mandate to protect park areas for the "unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." But according to a policy report entitled, "Rethinking the National Parks for the 21st Century," the NPS is not fulfilling this mission. "The Park Service must recognize that the complexion of America is changing," noted the report's authors. "More minorities must be included in the workforce, which, if more representative of the nation, will in turn attract a broader representative range of park visitors."

According to a 2013 report by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, 80 percent of NPS employees are white. And of the 22 members of the National Park Foundation’s board, an organization whose mission is to raise much needed funds to support the parks, only four are minorities.

So minority populations simply don't have NPS sites on their radar, and when they do visit, it's likely that they feel uncomfortable due to the lack of racial diversity among the NPS employees they encounter.

Friar commented that the NPS is working to "connect with and create the next generation of park visitors, supporters, and advocates," through digital communication tools and the NPS' recent Find Your Park initiative. But it's unclear how these programs will bring awareness about park service sites to an otherwise unaware segment of the population.

older couple looks out over overlook at Shenandoah National ParkMore than half of the people who visit national parks, like Shenandoah National Park, are over 50. And those numbers keep going up. (Photo: S.Borisov/Shutterstock)
And then there's the issue of the aging park visitor. Take a look at surveys conducted at some of those parks listed above, and you'll see that more than half of the visitors to NPS sites are 50 years old or older — and those numbers continue to climb. A report from the National Forest Service (a separate agency from the NPS but one that also caters to outdoor recreation and activities,) found that the average age of a visitor to Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area was 26 in 1969, 36 in 1991, and 45 in 2007. It's the same people who keep coming back. The NPS is seeing a similar trend.

To directly address this issue, the NPS announced an initiative to give all fourth-graders free passes to national parks for the next year. They are also improving Wi-Fi access within parks and bringing in more concerts and speakers in an effort to draw a younger crowd. NPS officials are hoping that these efforts will bring more kids — and their families — to NPS sites, encouraging the next generation of park stewards to care for our nation's parks.

Next year, the National Park Service will celebrate it's 100th birthday. That's 100 years of protecting and preserving park sites for the enjoyment of future generations. But just who will make up those future generations of park visitors? It's too soon to tell. Hopefully — for the sake of the parks and monuments around the country — future park visitors will be folks of all ages and ethnicities who feel a connection with our nation's treasures.

The National Park Service has a diversity problem
It's plain to see in the makeup of visitors and staff, but here's how parks can stay relevant.