The White River National Forest’s request for Land and Water Conservation Fund money to permanently protect Garfield County’s Sweetwater Lake — a pristine oasis surrounded by public lands — has been granted.
But the agency did not say how much of the requested $8.5 million from the fund will be distributed. That’s just one of several recent examples of foot dragging by Trump Administration land managers who have missed critical deadlines imposed by the Great American Outdoors Act, a sweeping public lands bill that President Donald Trump promoted to help buoy Republican senators facing tough re-election bids in the West.
The Forest Service on Friday released its 2021 list of Land and Water Conservation Fund projects for state grants under the Forest Legacy Program and for land acquisition. The list was due Nov. 2 as part of the passage this summer of the Great American Outdoors Act, which promised to whittle down an estimated $20 billion in deferred maintenance on public lands and directed $900 million a year into the Land and Water Conservation Fund. (The fund is supported by oil and gas royalties paid by energy companies exploring and drilling on federal land and water.)
The Great American Outdoors Act requires the Forest Service and the Department of Interior to submit “a detailed description of each project, including the estimated expenditures from the fund for the project for applicable fiscal years,” by Nov. 2. Both agencies missed that deadline. The list released Friday by the Forest Service also lacked the dollar figures required by the legislation.
As an added twist, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on Friday issued an order that added new provisions to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, including severe limitations on the Bureau of Land Management’s ability to add new acreage. Bernhardt’s Secretarial Order 3388 prioritized land acquisitions by the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the BLM.
A vague list he scripted last week distributing $900 million worth of Land and Water Conservation Fund money sent just $2.5 million to the BLM for land acquisition, and dismissed six projects that had been previously trumpeted by the Trump Administration during the summer’s cheerleading for the Great American Outdoors Act.
“That is consistent with the disdain Bernhardt has had for the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” said Aaron Weiss, the deputy director for the Center for Western Priorities. “He tried to defund it for three years and now he’s throwing sand in the gears before he leaves. Really, these guys are just making it up as they go along right now because they know it doesn’t matter. They are going to be gone soon.”
Bernhardt’s order also requires both the approval of state governors and local county leaders for all federal land acquisition. The Garfield County Commissioners have long opposed adding federal land in their county but they do support the protection of Sweetwater Lake.
“We will stand behind that, most certainly,” said Commissioner John Martin.
In the final line of Friday’s order, Bernhardt added a legally questionable clause.
“The termination of this order will not nullify the implementation of the requirement and responsibilities effected herein,” he wrote.
A workaround emerges
But there is another option for seeing the Great American Outdoors Act fully deployed. Congress could force Bernhardt and the Forest Service to fund all the projects that were part of the promotions for the legislation. And lawmakers appear to be preparing to do just that.
The U.S. Senate’s Appropriations Committee on Tuesday released funding recommendations for the Interior Department and Forest Service with specific projects and dollar amounts. The committee plan directs $54.1 million to the BLM — a $51.6 million increase over Bernhardt’s plan — and $120 million to the Forest Service for land acquisition. The committee’s list for LWCF acquisition projects includes $8.5 million for the Forest Service for Sweetwater Lake.
Sweetwater Lake and the surrounding 488 acres has been owned for decades by private developers who pondered a luxury retreat, a golf course and even a water-bottling facility. The White River National Forest’s request for Land and Water Conservation Fund support was among the agency’s Top 10 priority projects for 2021.
Officials with the White River National Forest directed all calls about plans for Sweetwater Lake to the agency’s national press office, where spokeswoman Babete Anderson said there was no more information to share.
“The list is the extent of the information on projects that we are sharing at this time, as numbers are still being finalized and we want to do everything we can to ensure efficient use of these funds,” she wrote in an email. “We hope to have more information soon.”
In the past 50-plus years, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has awarded more than $272 million in grants to more than 1,100 projects in Colorado. The list includes national parks like Rocky Mountain and Great Sand Dunes, state parks including Golden Gate, Roxborough and Castlewood Canyon, and city parks such as Confluence in Denver and Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs.
A Land and Water Conservation Fund grant of $8.5 million for Sweetwater Lake would be among the largest ever awarded to Colorado. (Congress directed $14 million of the fund toward protecting almost 10,000 acres around Red Mountain in the early 2000s.)
The grant from the Land and Water Conservation Fund will end a nearly two-year campaign to protect the lake and surrounding acres that spill from the Flat Tops Wilderness. That “Save the Lake” effort saw the Eagle Valley Land Trust raise more than $1 million from local governments and donors.
The protection effort began with The Conservation Fund, which approached the private owners of the property in 2018 with a proposal for protection. Coulton Creek Capital, the Greenwood Village investment group that took over the property when a 12-year plan to bottle water from a spring on the property evaporated, was listing the “Sweetwater Canyon Club” for $9.3 million and agreed to work with the conservation group. Great Outdoors Colorado loaned money to The Conservation Fund to make the purchase with a plan to transfer the property over to the Forest Service.
‘“Despite the challenges, this has been moving along actually quicker than we anticipated,” said Justin Spring with The Conservation Fund.
When, or if, the land becomes part of the National Forest System, the White River has a long list of priorities for Sweetwater Lake, including improvements to the water supply on the property and upgrades to a campground and boat launch.
The agency is in talks with Colorado Parks and Wildlife about a shared management plan at Sweetwater Lake that could lead to the property becoming a new state park.
“Sweetwater checks some important boxes for CPW and what we want stuff to look like. There is obviously water recreation and we also like the location as close as it is to I-70,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton. “Then there’s the access it provides to federal land, just a massive amount of land. So yes, there are many reasons we want to be part of that conversation with the Forest Service. We are in a mode right now where we are looking at other parcels. The governor has let his intention be known that he wants more state parks.”
Adrienne Brink has run A.J. Brink Outfitters at Sweetwater Lake for 36 years. Over that span, she’s worked with six different land owners, all of them providing her a year-to-year lease for her business hosting hunters, campers and horseback-riding guests. Each of those owners had big plans, but nothing ever happened. The lack of continuity has made it difficult for her to invest in her cabins, restaurant, campground and stables.
In the past several months she’s hosted White River forest officials and engineers who were making plans should the Land and Water Conservation Fund come through. She was eager to share her list of priorities, including replacing the 1954 roof on the restaurant, better camping access and maybe even a venue where she could host weddings and events similar to those held at Coulter Lake Guest Ranch near Rifle or Trappers Lake Lodge northwest of Meeker, both of which have concessionaire permits to operate amenities on federal land.
“I never really had any owners who wanted to spend money on improvements,” she said. “I’m hopeful. We’ve been here for 36 years and always worried whether we would be coming back the next year. I’m hoping we can find some stability with the Forest Service. Sure seems like we are headed in the right direction.”