Fighting for “Rocky”
For the past three years, Darla Sidles has been tasked with a very big job—running Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.
As the first woman to serve as superintendent of this beloved 415-square-mile park, this Girl Scout alum considers herself a steward of the picturesque wildflower-filled place. But ask her what she considers a top priority, and the boss of 400 or so year-round staffers and thousands of volunteers will tell you her most important job is making sure her staff is happy.
“One of my first priorities is to improve the work environment for the staff,” says Darla. “I really believe that if you take care of your staff, they will do a great job.”
To that end, Darla immediately appealed for funding to build new housing for the staff. The park was built in 1915, and a lot of the infrastructure is old. Budget decreases have made pulling the funding together challenging.
One of her other big priorities: handling the 46 percent increase in visits to the park since 2012, likely due to an increase in overall interest in outdoor recreation and an explosive population uptick in Denver, just 90 minutes away.
“This rise in visitors to the park has led to an increase in illegal campfires, an increase in visible human waste, resource damage, and a huge increase in vegetation trampling,” she notes. “A large part of the park is above the tree line, and that’s a fragile ecosystem that’s difficult to recover if damaged.”
Darla also considers it her team’s mission to protect the resources of the park, assess the impact of climate change on the park, and provide an “outstanding visitor experience.”
Rocky Mountain National Park is home to more than 300 miles of hiking trails, many of which are extremely popular in summertime.
“There’s so much congestion on the trails on busy days. It can also be a challenge when you have to wait on line at an entrance station only to find out that there are no parking spaces,” she says. The park now has a shuttle system to help mitigate the crowds during peak times
Interestingly, given her long career working in the national parks system, Darla didn’t grow up camping or spending lots of time outdoors.
Even as a girl in Kansas City—where she was a Brownie and a Junior—she went camping only once and remembers “being afraid of being in the dark.” She visited “Rocky” once when she was seven years old. It was, in fact, the only national park she visited as a child.
As a business major at the University of Texas at Arlington, hiking, canoeing, and rock climbing began to interest Darla. After graduation, she volunteered on a trail crew.
“That’s when I truly fell in love with the outdoors,” she says. “Initially it was the diversity of the 419 national parks around the country that appealed to me, but what kept me interested was all I could learn about our nation’s heritage. … It’s fun to look at the wall of white men who have come before me,” she reflects. “I won’t have a photo up there until I leave, but it’s an honor to be Rocky’s first female superintendent.”