This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins. Become a Newsletters+ Member to get The Outsider at coloradosun.com/join. (Existing members, click here to learn how to upgrade)
Conservationists pushing to buy and protect Sweetwater Lake are nearing $1 million in donations, as the White River National Forest vies for as much as $8.5 million in support from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
The Eagle Valley Land Trust is working to raise $3.5 million for the $9 million purchase of the 488-acre, privately-owned property surrounded by National Forest land.
The trust is working with the Conservation Fund and the Forest Service to buy the Sweetwater Lake Resort property and make it part of the White River National Forest.
Eagle County has directed $500,000 toward the effort, while the town of Gypsum has given $20,000 and Eagle has given $10,000. An anonymous donor last month gave $200,000.
“It’s pretty extraordinary to see local governments commit funding for a project that will go, essentially, to a federal agency,” said Justin Spring, project manager with the Conservation Fund’s Colorado office. “I think that reflects the importance of this property to local communities.”
The Denver investment firm that owns the water-rich parcel in the shadow of the Flat Tops Wilderness has contracted to sell to the Conservation Fund. But the deal has a lot of moving parts. Locals will need to dig deep, and the Forest Service needs to secure funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
The national Conservation Fund might have to hold the property for two or even three years while the Forest Service secures those conservation dollars. So far, optimism is high.
Last month, Congress allocated $495 million for the Land and Water Conservation Fund in 2020, the largest allocation in the past 17 years. The fund, which was permanently authorized by Congress in November 2019, has distributed $3.9 billion for parks, trails and recreation areas in all 50 states since 1969, using royalties paid by energy companies drilling for oil and gas offshore. Colorado has seen $272 million in LWCF funding over the past 50 years.
Sweetwater Lake has been eyed for development or land swaps with the Forest Service since the 1980s. Most recently, an investor spent more than a decade seeking local and federal approval to bottle water from a spring on the property, which includes a cave with Ute pictographs on the walls. When the water plan foundered, the property listed for sale in 2017 for $9.3 million. Potential buyers have been circling, floating plans for a private resort, luxury-home community and a golf course.
Last summer the Conservation Fund and Eagle Valley Land Trust negotiated with the owners — Coulton Creek Capital in Greenwood Village — to land a deal that would protect the area from development and keep it open to the public.
Scott Fitzwilliams, the supervisor of the White River National Forest, said it’s rare to find an inholding of private property bordering wilderness and offering so much water. His team last month submitted an application requesting a range of funding around $8.5 million, based on outside support. The agency has identified a number of improvements to the area, including a small public campground on the edge of the lake.
“We expect the Sweetwater parcel to compete very well. There is always a lot of competition for LWCF funding, but this parcel meets most of the criteria so we are cautiously optimistic about getting funding,” Fitzwilliams said.
Every donation — the trust has collected more than 115 donations, including that anonymous gift of $200,000 since launching its Save the Lake campaign in September — and the support of local communities make a difference when applying for LWCF support, the Eagle Valley Land Trust’s Bergen Tjossem said.
“I think what really excites people about this project is that no matter what your views are for public lands, it just makes sense for this property,” Tjossem said.
“If we don’t protect this now, we totally lose control and it could be turned into a golf course or a bottling plant and we will have lost the opportunity to protect it for the local community and protect the economic benefits it provides our local communities.”