Q&A: Rocky Mountain National Park superintendent Darla Sidles retires

Rocky Mountain National Park superintendent Darla Sidles will retire June 30 after seven years leading the country’s fourth-busiest national park, leaving behind an office at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center with a stunning panoramic view of Longs Peak and its sheer east face.

She took over the top position at the park after serving seven years as superintendent at Saguaro National Park in Arizona.

“It’s been such a passion and honor to work here,” Sidles said Thursday in an hour-long interview. “And the whole (National) Parks Service for that matter, 34 years. It’s been a good career.”

Much of her focus at Rocky Mountain National Park has been on managing visitor use, and for many it has come to define her tenure. Driven largely by Front Range population growth, the park surpassed 4 million visitors for the first time the year before she took over, and it has exceeded 4 million every year since then except for the COVID year of 2020. Last year was the sixth-busiest year in the park’s 108-year history, with 4.3 million visitors.

“I knew coming into this job that was going to be my biggest challenge,” said Sidles, 59, who also had to manage the park’s recovery from the East Troublesome fire in the fall of 2020.

In 2020, she implemented a “pilot” timed-entry reservation system, which could become permanent in 2024. A final decision on that is due later this year. The following includes excerpts of Thursday’s interview, which has been edited for length.

Q. Let’s go back to 2016 and the implementation of temporary road closures when parking lots were filling up. That’s when you realized you needed to start looking for other solutions. Walk us through that.

A. We were closing areas as they filled up. We had illegal parking everywhere, we had people getting into fistfights over parking spaces. Our entire Bear Lake crew quit after the 2015 season because of the abuse they were getting from visitors. That’s when we realized not only was it impacting resources, it was also a horrible visitor experience and it was very negatively impacting our staff. We did temporary (road) closures from 2016 to 2019, and we realized it was like putting a band-aid on the problem. It wasn’t proactively addressing the situation. We set a foundation for starting a visitor use management plan, and then COVID hit. We closed the park for two months, but the concern when we did reopen was, how are we going to do that safely? That was our opportunity to try some of the ideas we’d be thinking of, more proactive solutions.

Q. When you reopened the park during the pandemic after a two-month closure, you implemented a timed-entry system that you’d already been considering?

A. We already knew we had visitor use management problems. We knew we couldn’t just open the gate after a two-month hiatus.

Q. And the numbers were lower because of the pandemic.

A. Yes, much lower. We capped the numbers at approximately 60% (of capacity). It was one parkwide system. Every year we’ve assessed, “What did we learn this year? What did we do well? What can we do better?” We realized Bear Lake is the Eiffel Tower of Rocky Mountain National Park. Almost everyone wants to go to Bear Lake. We realized we truly needed to have a system that spreads out that use at Bear Lake. We toyed with the idea of letting the rest of the park go without a reservation system, but we realized if we did that, everyone who couldn’t get into Bear Lake would overwhelm the rest of the park. We had already, prior to 2020, seen the Alpine Visitors Center (on Trail Ridge Road) parking lot with a two-mile backup. So we came up with a two-tiered system (in 2021). We decided we couldn’t open up the rest of the park fully, but we could make a much shorter reservation period during peak hours.

Q. And you’ve increased the number of visitors allowed in during peak times since the pandemic.

A. Yes, we’ve made tweaks along the way. We’re at about 90% now.

Q. How do you determine the park’s capacity?

A. We’ve done traffic studies, parking lot turnover studies. We’ve analyzed a lot of data each year.

Q. What has been the result in visitation numbers?

A. We’ve flattened visitation. Visitation last year was 4.4 million. In 2019, which was our (record) visitation, it was 4.6 million. We haven’t reduced visitation by a lot.

Q. You’ve been calling timed-entry reservations a “pilot” program, but you seem to be in the process of making it permanent as a part of a new visitor use management plan. Describe where you are now in the planning process.

A. We’re putting together our long-range, day-use visitor access strategy through the National Environmental Policy Act. We’ve had two public comment periods, one in 2021 and one this past December through January, getting feedback from people, throwing out some concepts. We’re now crafting the alternatives for our long-range plan. We hope to have those done and a draft plan out to the public this fall.

Q. By alternatives, do you mean a range of possible solutions?

A. Yes. We will have a preferred alternative in there. The public will see the full analysis.

Q. Following that public comment period, when would you anticipate the new plan will be implemented?

A. We’re hopeful we will have that finalized so we can implement whatever it is for next year. Our hope is that this year is our last “pilot.”

Q. How would you characterize the feedback you’ve received over the years regarding timed-entry reservations?

A. Over the years, we’ve gotten more support. When we first initiated it in 2020, it was a bit of a novelty and people were not familiar with it. Over the years we’ve had far more people say that it’s a benefit. That curve of people supporting proactive planning, so they can ensure they’re going to have a good experience and that the resource is going to be protected, is definitely what we’re hearing these days. We will always hear the negative. We’re not going to please everyone, no matter what we do. We’ve gotten a lot of letters from people saying, “Initially I was not in support of this, I’ve tried it and now I am in support.”

Q. What do you say to people who ask you where you get the right to limit their access to public land?

A. I just tell people we are protecting Rocky Mountain National Park. We’re following the mission of the National Park Service to ensure this place is in good condition for future generations. This is my job, to ensure we are doing everything we can to fulfill that mission, and we feel we are doing the right thing by managing the number of people. We acknowledge that some people will never like that, but prior to doing any visitor use management, it was completely unacceptable.

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