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The Conservation Fund on Tuesday finalized its acquisition of Sweetwater Lake bordering the Flat Tops Wilderness in Garfield County. (Todd Winslow Pierce, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Conservation Fund on Tuesday finalized its acquisition of Sweetwater Lake, getting a bargain price and marking a milestone in the effort to protect the 488-acre property long eyed for big development. 

It’s been almost a year since the fund began negotiating with investors who owned the lake surrounded by White River National Forest and bordered by the Flat Tops Wilderness. The plan was to buy the property for $9.3 million and then transfer it over to the White River National Forest, which would tap the Land and Water Conservation Fund to pay back the national conservation organization.

“We knew we were taking a risk, but this is why The Conservation Fund exists; to bridge the gap between private landowners who can’t wait around all day and federal agencies who have their own processes,” The Conservation Fund’s project manager Justin Spring said. “We can’t thank the investors enough for taking a chance on conservation. Without them, we wouldn’t be here.”

Greenwood Village’s Coulton Creek Capital sold the property for $7.1 million. The investment group, which took over the lake and surrounding acreage in 2017 when an entrepreneur’s 12-year plan to bottle water from a nearby spring evaporated into bankruptcy, listed the property for $9.3 million as a potential luxury waterfront club

Spring said the investment group was able to benefit from the cash sale as well as tax benefits from selling to a nonprofit at a discount. 

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As developers circled the property in 2019, The Conservation Fund and the Eagle Valley Land Trust built their plan to raise money that could bolster a bid for Land and Water Conservation Fund support. Things fell into place quickly. Eagle County pledged $500,000 to help protect the lake in Garfield County. Great Outdoors Colorado loaned The Conservation Fund money. The White River National Forest’s $8.5 million plan for Sweetwater Lake landed at No. 9 on the LWCF’s plans for the coming year. That marked the largest request on the Forest Service’s list of 36 projects. And, if approved, it will be among the largest allotments of LWCF money ever in Colorado. 

And the 50-year-old LWCF is close to being fully funded at $900 million for the first time in decades as part of the Great American Outdoors Act, which the U.S. Senate approved last month.

“Last fall we could never have imagined it would be going this well,” said Bergen Tjossem, deputy director of the Eagle Valley Land Trust, which transferred the Eagle County pledge and more than $350,000 in community donations to The Conservation Fund. “It’s a testament to what a great project this is. This just shows that this is a property worth protecting and everyone knows it.”

The Eagle Valley Land Trust hopes to continue its “Save the Lake” fundraising campaign to support the Forest Service’s recreation development at the 77-acre lake where a rotation of six deep-pocketed owners have spent almost four decades conjuring big development dreams. 

“Now we can get started on enhancing the property,” Tjossen said of the trust’s plans for a stewardship fund, suggesting docks for non-motorized watercraft and improved trails around the lake.

The Forest Service is in a holding pattern as it awaits a final decision from Congress on LWCF project funding.

“But because of the ranking and the very strong support we feel very confident about that funding,” said White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams. 

There are many more steps before the Forest Service can open Sweetwater Lake to visitors. After title and appraisal work, the Forest Service will study how existing structures may fit into its overarching recreation plan. The agency is still in talks with Colorado Parks and Wildlife about a unique management partnership. 

“We want to make sure we develop a recreation strategy that is sustainable and maintains and protects the value behind why we purchased this in the first place,” Fitzwilliams said. 

Fitzwilliams, like Spring, cheered the investment group that stuck with the prolonged process of conservation. 

“There has to be a somewhat altruistic reason for landowners and businesses to work with us and conservation groups,” he said. “Long-term conservation in the U.S. is not just the role of government. It takes private business and landowners and nonprofits to make conservation work.”

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,...