SWEETWATER LAKE — The newest federal land in Colorado will become the state’s 43rd state park in a first-of-its-kind partnership between the state and the U.S. Forest Service.
What started as an effort to protect 488 acres surrounding Sweetwater Lake above the Colorado River from private development on Wednesday became the country’s first state park on Forest Service land.
“We are creating more opportunities for Coloradans to enjoy the great beautiful outdoors, preserving and conserving our most amazing wild areas and meeting the needs of Coloradans and those across the country and world who love to explore and play here on Colorado’s public lands,” Gov. Jared Polis said Wednesday atop a bluff overlooking the lake in Garfield County.
The White River National Forest took ownership of the oasis adjacent to the Flat Tops Wilderness this summer after securing $8.5 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Two years ago, The Conservation Fund and the Eagle Valley Land Trust joined to buy the property from a Denver investment group, with a plan to transfer it over to the national forest.
The White River is the eighth owner of the parcel in the last few decades. The remote acreage has been eyed by wealthy investors for development of golf courses, a private community of luxury homes and even a water bottling plant.
Adrienne Brink first visited Sweetwater Lake as a 19-year-old in 1969 on a backcountry horseback trip. She returned a few years later with her husband and bought the horse packing outfitter. They bought the Sweetwater Resort — some cabins, a restaurant, a boat launch and a campground, in the mid 1980s. They’ve been running trips — with a permit from the White River National Forest — and hosting visitors ever since. In that time, she’s seen six owners come and go, not counting the two conservation groups or the Forest Service.
Those investors had big dreams. She’s got maps they sketched of golf courses in meadows where she grazes her horses. The water-bottling planners — “really nice guys,” she said — left her unable to irrigate those meadows as they studied flows from the spring where they hoped to collect water to sell under the name “Vaspen.”
But none of the big dreamers ever made any progress. They never invested in the property. They never even put a shovel to dirt.
“At some point we had to remove ourselves and realize we don’t have to own this. Nobody owns this. We’ve considered this a public place for many years,” said Brink, who has less than two years remaining on her outfitter’s permit with the Forest Service but hopes to renew so she can continue offering horse rides and horse-packing into the backcountry. “We don’t own it. We just need to take care of it.”
The Forest Service last year began crafting possible upgrades at Sweetwater Lake. The agency wanted to improve a tired campground and rebuild dilapidated boat docks for paddlers. The agency’s first park management partnership with Colorado Parks and Wildlife will expedite investment and improvements. Details of exactly how the upgrades will unfold under the shared management plan are still unclear. A community-based process will vet improvements, some of which will require review under the National Environmental Policy Act.
There is “a lot more work to do,” said Jacque Buchanan, deputy regional forester of the agency’s Rocky Mountain Region.
“In my 30 years of working with the Forest Service, you don’t often get to be a part of something, in this time and age, that is a first,” Buchanan said. “This is an example of what shared stewardship can bring to a state like Colorado and I think this is the first of many opportunities for us to be able to look forward and find opportunities to provide recreational access to the citizens of Colorado and the American public while we can still protect incredible resources of water, wildlife and heritage.”
Sweetwater Lake is the second new state park added to Colorado Parks and Wildlife under Polis. Last year Colorado Parks and Wildlife opened Fishers Peak State Park in Trinidad. And more are coming, Polis said.
“We are aggressively working on identifying other iconic areas of Colorado that can be part of our world class state park system,” he said.
Colorado and the Forest Service created a “shared stewardship” agreement in 2019, with a memorandum of understanding that provided the framework for the state and Forest Service to work with local communities, tribal partners and a host of other agencies “to work collaboratively to accomplish mutual goals, further common interests and effectively respond to the challenges facing the communities, landscapes, natural resources and cultural resources of the state.”
That program has led the state and Forest Service to map wildfire hazards and possible mitigation strategies. And now it’s led to a new state park. Dan Gibbs, the director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, said he’s working with the Bureau of Land Management on a similar shared stewardship agreement.
“There could be partnerships for a state park on Bureau of Land Management Land or just greater collaboration, whether it’s on oil and gas or state parks or forest management,” Gibbs said. “My hope is this (Sweetwater Lake park) will be one of many as we look to partner with the U.S. Forest Service. If we can make it seamless for everyone in the state to have these great partnerships, we are going to do it. And I love having a boss like Gov. Polis who is really encouraging that, which is cool.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife works with other landowners in managing parks, like the Bureau of Reclamation at Cherry Creek State Park. The partnership at Sweetwater Lake will expedite investment in upgrades at the new park. Polis said visitors can expect “enhanced access” to the new state park by June next year, with a new boat dock, upgraded restrooms and additional improvements.
“We have the money in our park plan for expanding our park system,” said Polis pointing to the recent addition of a new boathouse at Chatfield State Park, expanded parking and improved campgrounds and other parks. “There is such a huge demand for our state parks that we made it a priority in the early days of my administration to add more state parks — and by the way this is two with more to come — but also expand capacities.”
The new park — which has not been officially named but Gibbs said would likely include a nod to the White River National Forest — is a blueprint for state and federal cooperation in expanding Colorado’s state parks. The effort to protect Sweetwater Lake included the towns of Gypsum and Eagle, Eagle and Garfield counties and local residents who led the “Save the Lake” effort to raise local dollars for the transfer to public ownership. The Conservation Fund has given the Eagle Valley Land Trust more than $1 million for the Sweetwater Lake Stewardship & Equity Fund, which will help fund improvement and improve access for underprivileged communities.
“The idea was to help activate investment. So you need docks, here’s some matching money available today. You need new trail construction or campgrounds, it can be used for that,” said Justin Spring, the project manager for The Conservation Fund’s Colorado office.
“The equity fund will help make sure and plan that the underserved communities and all types of communities will have access to this land so we have this recreation open to all people,” said Kelly Ingebritson, who manages Colorado projects for The Conservation Fund.
The Conservation Fund was first to galvanize the movement to protect Sweetwater Lake after an investment group that took control of the property from the stalled water-bottlers listed the property in 2017 for $9.3 million. The group joined with the Eagle Valley Land Trust and Great Outdoors Colorado and then gathered support from diverse boards of county commissioners, town councils and local residents in addition to state and federal land managers in the effort to protect Sweetwater Lake from yet another developer with big plans.
“It just came so close to being lost to development and being a private high-end resort community,” Spring said. “We were hopeful we would get to his point.”