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The 77-acre Sweetwater Lake above the Colorado River near Dotsero is part of a 488-acre parcel a coalition of conservation groups is buying in hopes of transferring the property into the White River National Forest. (Provided by The Conservation Fund)

Adrienne Brink came out to Sweetwater Lake above the Colorado River near Dotsero in 1969 for a backcountry horseback trip. She and her husband bought the horse packing outfitter in 1975. They bought the Sweetwater Lake Resort — cabins, restaurants, boat launch and a campground — in 1984

Since she landed on the lake in the shadow of the Forest Service’s Flat Tops Wilderness, six different owners have controlled the 488-acre property that anchors her resort and her business, A.J. Brink Outfitters. 

“Thirty-five years. It’s been a rollercoaster. Some OK owners. Some not-OK owners,” she said. “I can understand their interest. There’s no property like this in the state of Colorado and, maybe, the United States. A federal, natural lake surrounded two-thirds by private property.”

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The next owner in line for the Sweetwater Lake property has Brink excited. It has plenty of people excited. The Conservation Fund and the Eagle Valley Land Trust have partnered in an effort to buy the property from a Denver investment group and deed it to the White River National Forest, which has long pined for the water-rich private parcel surrounded by public lands.

The two conservation groups are joining the White River National Forest to apply for $9 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. They want to raise $3.5 million in local support. 

Garfield County commissioners this week voted to support the plan, despite the board’s previous concerns about growing the acreage of federal lands in the county. 

Sweetwater Lake and 488 acres adjacent to the Flat Tops Wilderness could be deeded to the White River National Forest.

“I made an exception and went with support for this one,” said six-term commissioner John Martin. “It’s been a community for a hundred-something years up there and they don’t get much support and the lake is the heart of the community. If this can help keep the community together and vibrant, well that’s fantastic.”

Nine million dollars is a particularly big ask in the competitive scramble for Land and Water Conservation Fund support, said White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams. The fund, which, through Colorado Parks and Wildlife, has distributed $272 million for recreation and conservation projects in Colorado over the last 50 years, typically doles out smaller amounts for projects. 

But Fitzwilliams is confident the Sweetwater Lake property will shine in the application process.

“This will compete fantastically, no question,” he said, noting that local efforts to raise money will help elevate the proposal in the Land and Water Conservation Fund process. “This would be a great property to have in public ownership. It is an extremely rare opportunity.”

The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which Congress permanently reauthorized this spring, has distributed $3.9 billion in oil and gas royalty revenue to 42,000 projects since its inception in 1969. Colorado’s U.S. Senators Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet this week came together to urge Congress to permanently fund the LWCF at $900 million a year. 

The 77-acre Sweetwater Lake and more than 400 acres surrounding it could be open to the public if a conservation plan shifts the property into the White River National Forest. (Provided by The Conservation Fund)

Investors had different dreams for Sweetwater Lake, including bottling it

Investors have dreamed big at Sweetwater Lake, where a lakeside lodge and restaurant have served as a community rallying point for more than a century. 

“It’s old Colorado. You just don’t see places like that anymore,” said Hope Kapsner, who was born and raised on the banks of Sweetwater Creek and still lives with her family on the lake. “Especially so close to Vail and Beaver Creek, it’s like this other world.”

Magnus Lindholm, the former shipping tycoon from Sweden who owns giant swaths of the Vail Valley, owned the Sweetwater property in the 1980s. Lindholm wanted to swap Sweetwater Lake and its surrounding land with the White River National Forest for other federal parcels adjacent to his developments in Avon and above Wolcott, but the deal crumbled with a lack of local support. Previous owners also have worked with the Forest Service, proposing exchanges that would give the agency more access to the lake and protect a cave on the property with Ute pictographs on its walls.

Castle Rock investor Steve Miller owned the property more recently, spending 12 years to secure local state and federal approval to bottle water from a spring on the land. After the “Vaspen” water plan evaporated when Miller’s company filed for bankruptcy, his lenders, Greenwood Village’s Coulton Creek Capital, took control of the property and in 2017 put it on the market for $9.3 million

This summer, as potential buyers circled, Brink did not open her cabins, restaurant or boat launch

With the resort operation shut down and developers preparing offers, The Conservation Fund and Eagle Valley Land Trust spent the summer exploring ways to protect the lake and the land. 

A woman rides in a canoe on Sweetwater Lake. (Provided by The Conservation Fund)

“Fortunately the Conservation Fund took an interest and they had the deep pockets to be able to convince the landowner to go under contract with them versus a developer,” said Jim Daus, the executive director of the Eagle Valley Land Trust. “At least one developer had made an offer. We were able to convince the landowner that The Conservation Fund proposal was more attractive than any developer’s proposal.”

The land trust is organizing a fundraising campaign to raise $3.5 million to help bolster the Land and Water Conservation Fund application. 

“To be competitive, we need to raise private funds,” said Daus, who on Thursday resigned from the land trust after five years at the helm. “Seldom are there projects that have such a pull on the heart strings and an impact on a broader community than Sweetwater Lake Resort. We are interested in promoting conservation of important cultural and natural resources as more and more development pressure impacts our mountain communities. Sweetwater Lake has so many attributes that define Colorado for what it is, from horse packing trips to canoeing to stunning scenery and vital habitat with the backdrop of the Flat Tops Wilderness. It may be the most important project the land trust has every worked on.”

Development was only a matter of time

The local support will help the application be “as successful and as competitive as possible,” said Justin Spring, project manager for The Conservation Fund’s Colorado office. 

Spring is amazed the the easily accessible lake has escaped the sophisticated development seen in the Vail and Eagle valleys — especially such a water-wealthy property, which includes 18 cubic-feet-per-second of water rights for irrigation and domestic use plus additional conditional rights and 240 acre-feet of storage in the 77-acre lake. 

“How many times do you get an opportunity to save a lake?” he said. 

The Sweetwater Lake property has been on The Conservation Fund’s radar since it was listed for sale two years ago. As Spring heard of offers from developers, the fund prepared its own bid.

Spring cheers the Front Range investment team that owns the property for going with The Conservation Fund, which has protected more than 260,000 acres of working ranches, river corridors and recreation areas in Colorado with hopes that protected land can provide economic and recreational opportunities to neighboring communities. 

“Hats off to the group of Denver investors,” Spring said. “They ultimately gave conservation a chance here.”

Fitzwilliams hopes to submit a LWCF funding request in November for money from the fund’s fiscal 2021 budget. 

Fitzwilliams feels a bit of urgency. 

“I have to think, maybe these last development proposals haven’t worked out but with that much water and water rights, it’s only a matter of time that sooner or later some development will go through,” he said.

In addition to the LWCF support for the acquisition, Fitzwilliams said would seek funding for recreation-based capital improvements at the property. 

There is an old Forest Service campground on the south end of the lake, with nine campsites a muddy slog from the shoreline. Fitzwilliam’s to-do list would include maybe moving or improving that campground, building a better boat launch, providing new recreational access to the lake and trailheads, protecting the Ute cave as well as the water rights and keeping A.J. Brink Outfitters viable. Down the line, maybe a private concessionaire could help with tourist amenities at the property, he said. 

“These things take years to pull off but its pretty special place,” he said.

If the deal goes through and the White River National Forest becomes her landlord, Brink said she hopes to work out a concessionaire’s resort permit similar to Coulter Lake Guest Ranch, near Rifle, or Trappers Lake Lodge, northeast of Meeker. 

“Hopefully we could find room for more cabins and develop more campsites,” she said. “I don’t think moving into the White River will change our operation too much. But it would open this place to the public and it would stay that way. It’s scary to think that someone could buy this and gate it off and that would be the end.”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. He writes The Outsider, a weekly newsletter covering the outdoors industry from the inside out. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors,...