This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
SWEETWATER — “Don’t look up, OK?”
Adrienne Brink is showing off the kitchen of the lodge at Sweetwater Lake Resort. For nearly 40 years she has used the lakeside log cabin with cinder block additions as a headquarters for AJ Brink outfitters, guiding thousands of hunters and horseback riders into the Flat Tops Wilderness.
She’s never owned the building, or the cabins around the lake. She’s worked with eight different owners since the 1980s. Most of them had big dreams — golf courses, luxury homes and even a water-bottling plant — but none invested much in upkeep. So the ceiling leaks. In a few spots. The buckets are lined up to catch rainwater trickling through the roof.
When the newest landlord visited, it was raining hard and water was pouring through the ceiling into the kitchen. The cabins where Brink’s guides were living were in worse shape, with mold and other problems more serious than leaking roofs.
“I can’t have people in these buildings. The lodge is not fit for human occupation. Period,” said Scott Fitzwilliams, the superintendent of the White River National Forest, which took over ownership of the 488-acre Sweetwater Lake property last fall and forged a first-of-its-kind federal-state partnership with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to manage the property as Colorado’s 43rd state park.
When Gov. Jared Polis last year stood atop a bluff overlooking the remote lake in Garfield County and triumphantly announced the deal with the Forest Service, the message was clear: Sweetwater Lake had been saved. Private developers had been eyeing Sweetwater Lake for decades. A rare confluence of funding — sparked by The Conservation Fund, Great Outdoors Colorado and the Eagle Valley Land Trust’s Save the Lake campaign — had shifted the property into federal hands.
Now the donors to the campaign, residents of the Sweetwater community and local leaders are wondering if the property might have been better off in private hands.
There’s a brewing fight up at Sweetwater, with residents and conservationists asking things like: What does it mean to “save” a natural treasure? What’s the difference between “preservation” and “conservation?” And, perhaps most importantly, is a single owner who never invests in a property or plans a luxury, gated community better or worse than 330 million owners, all of whom have a right to visit the public property they own?
“Everyone thought it would be better if the U.S. government owned that land. Then it became the next state park and there will be, potentially, a big campground at the end of our box canyon that will affect that community’s way of life. Now they are going from saving the lake to saving their community,” said Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky, who has been meeting with unhappy Sweetwater residents, many of whom donated to and championed the Save the Lake campaign. “Everyone feels like they got a bait and switch.”
The Forest Service wants to close — and likely tear down — several dilapidated buildings. That could put an end to Brink’s nearly 40-year business of guiding and outfitting hunters and backcountry travelers from Sweetwater. It could level a lodge and restaurant on the banks of the lake, where wood-paneled walls share a history told through faded photographs, yellow newspaper clippings and kitschy old signs.
“I’m kind of stuck here,” said Brink, who lives in Sweetwater.
The buildings have sat unused for three years during the sale process and pandemic. They need work. But they shouldn’t be destroyed, Brink said.
“If I lose the restaurant, I’ll go out of business. I need something more than just the horses,” she said after several weeks of meetings with the Forest Service. “I don’t see how we are going to survive and I don’t think that was anyone’s intention when they donated to save the lake.”
She doesn’t have lodging for 16 employees who are arriving at Sweetwater Lake this month. She needs a place to house those workers. She needs access to the restaurant to feed her guides and prepare camp meals for pack-trip guests. She needs an office to take phone calls and handle the paperwork. She needs cabins for hunters who arrive in the fall, many of them repeat visitors who have for decades hunted around the lake.
She has a plan to fix the lodge roof and patch up the cabins. She says she doesn’t need much to carry her through the next couple seasons while the federal and state government craft a long-term plan. But the Forest Service has told her she needs to vacate the lodge now.
“All this history could be lost,” she said, ambling through the lodge, flipping through photo albums stacked on empty tables, detailing her nearly 50 years of horseback guiding in five different Colorado wilderness areas. “Is this saving the lake?”
Balancing immediate needs with long-term planning
Garfield County commissioners in March asked the Forest Service to pursue a more intensive review of all development plans at Sweetwater Lake. The board asked White River boss Fitzwilliams to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement review, not a less-intensive Environmental Assessment, calling the switch to Colorado Parks and Wildlife management “a radical change to current circumstances.”
Fitzwilliams and CPW are about to select a design company to work with Sweetwater residents and other groups to build a plan for Colorado’s 43rd state park.
Where should the new campground go? How many sites should it have? Should there be RV hookups? How should the trails be changed or improved? Should there be rentals for paddleboards and boats? What should any facilities look like? How many horse trailers should be allowed? Should there be required permits or reservations for daytrippers?
A plan for new development — maybe ready by fall — would then wind through the National Environmental Protection Act process. These are the questions Fitzwilliams wants to work on. But first, there’s the triage.
“We haven’t had time to think about the big stuff because we are so busy with this triage and getting ready for this summer,” he told the Sweetwater Community Club earlier this month as they met in the community’s former schoolhouse.
“Between CPW and us, we have an opportunity here to do things right here,” said Fitzwilliams, marveling that “for the first time in my 31 year-career” he has a chance to build a plan from scratch, not adapt and develop in response to pressures and crowds. “But everything has to be in the context of public service and not that the community needs its cool place to gather or Adrienne needs her business.”
The transition from private to public is messy. Especially in a remote corner of Colorado’s high country that has been largely unchanged for more than a century. The most immediate shifts are what’s causing the most headaches up Sweetwater Creek right now.
“The thing with the buildings, it’s like tearing down your grandmother’s house,” a resident told Fitzwilliams at the log-cabin community club last week, where the walls are adorned with black-and-white pictures of relatives and ranchers who homesteaded the canyon. “You can build a new building, but never recapture that.”
“A new model for conservation”
A confluence of nonprofit, state and federal dollars funneled into the acquisition of the Sweetwater Lake parcel. Great Outdoors Colorado provided The Conservation Fund with a unique loan to buy the property. Then federal dollars flowing through the new Great American Outdoors Act and the Land and Water Conservation Fund delivered a one-time $8.5 million grant to the Forest Service to buy the parcel from The Conservation Fund.
In addition to the federal money and funds raised locally from donors to the Eagle Valley Land Trust’s Save the Lake campaign, the trust has $1.1 million in a Sweetwater Stewardship and Equity Fund and about $100,000 in another fund to help develop and transition the property.
Already the trust has paid the Forest Service to hire two seasonal staffers who will work at the property all summer.
The trust has money it can invest in capital upgrades, but it is working with the Forest Service and CPW “to make sure we are spending this money appropriately and pragmatically,” said Bergen Tjossen, the deputy director of the land trust.
“I look back at 2019 when we started this Save the Lake campaign and we thought our chance of success was pretty low. It was an incredible amount of funding that needed to come together,” Tjossen said. “Now we are building a brand new type of conservation project. We know that a lot of eyes are on this and there’s a lot of pressure for us to make this right. We also know people are coming and we have got to focus our available resources on where we can get the most bang for our buck.”
Tjossen knows that not everyone will be happy with how the new state park at Sweetwater Lake comes together. But he promises to include all voices in the planning and spending of the stewardship and equity grant and last dollars of the fundraising campaign. He hears a lot of residents talking about how to preserve the lake. He sees a distinction between preservation and conservation.
“We are setting out to conserve the lake and we are creating a new model for conservation,” Tjossen said.
Slowing down after a “rushed and chaotic” process
If this is the future for conservation, Jankovsky has issues. He says landscape-scale conservation projects can injure citizens and nearby communities that rely on access and multiple uses of public land.
“Did they save the lake when they made this land transfer? Probably not. The lake will be beautiful but we will have the Sylvan Lake and Hanging Lake and Maroon Bells syndrome, where it’s just loved to death,” Jankovsky said. “This is complex. We want beautiful land and we want blue skies and we want clean water but we don’t want crowds trampling our special places. So how do we balance all that?”
In addition to the unique confluence of federal and state dollars at the park, the line dividing Eagle County and Garfield County is about 8 miles west – up Sweetwater Creek – from the Colorado River. Eagle County gave $500,000 to the Save the Lake campaign. The Town of Gypsum gave $100,000. The property itself is in Garfield County, but most Sweetwater residents live in Eagle County.
Garfield County’s commissioners did not provide funding for the Save the Lake campaign. But in September 2019 they voted 2-1 to support the Forest Service’s acquisition of the property, despite the board’s longtime position against growing federal acreage in the county, which has about 1.3 million acres of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land. (The commissioners oppose, for example, President Joe Biden’s call to better protect 30% of public lands by 2030 and the CORE Act, which would increase protection for about 400,000 acres in Colorado, including Garfield County’s Thompson Divide.)
Garfield County was not included in the discussions to forge the federal-state partnership and create a new state park at Sweetwater Lake. Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials have apologized for that exclusion and promised to include the county in future planning. (Garfield County has formally requested to be included as a cooperating agency in the federal park planning process.)
The county’s commissioners showed up at the announcement by Polis without any indication of what was planned. That broke the public trust, said Fitzwilliams, who was out of town when Polis made the announcement and regrets not cluing in the two county’s leaders about the plan for a state park.
“And once you break the public trust, it’s really hard to get that back,” said Fitzwilliams, after showing up to meet with Sweetwater residents in the community center.
Fitzwilliams admits the federal-state partnership came together in a “rushed and chaotic fashion.”
“Are we woefully behind and inadequately prepared for the public engagement from the collaboration that I promised you guys a couple months ago? Yes, failing miserably,” Fitzwilliams told Garfield and Eagle county commissioners at a meeting in Glenwood Springs in April. “Mea culpas here. We are behind in that regard.”
But crowds are coming.
“So how do we get in front of that?” he asked the commissioners.
Reservations and education
Fitzwilliams has slowed the transition as he joins CPW in public meetings with Garfield and Eagle county leaders and residents. Combined with federal dollars from the Great American Outdoors Act and new state dollars rolling in from the Keep Colorado Wild Pass, there could be $30 million to spend at Sweetwater Lake.
Neither the Forest Service nor CPW is keen on pushing any of those dollars into saving decrepit buildings. The Land and Water Conservation Fund typically discourages directing its oil-and-gas royalty funds toward conservation projects that include buildings, because money is best spent protecting land, not structures that can add to the federal government’s multibillion-dollar backlog of deferred maintenance. But Sweetwater Lake came with buildings.
Fitzwilliams says he has liability concerns with health and safety at Sweetwater. He needs to put a railing on the bluff where Polis announced the new state park last fall. He needs to close off access to a cave once frequented by the Utes and plastered with pictographs. He’s adamant that food can’t be prepared in the leaky-roof restaurant.
It was Sweetwater’s long list of needed improvements that pushed him to forge the deal to create a state-managed, federally owned park.
“Investing a bunch of money now before we do a master plan and get through this whole process of what do we want, that doesn’t make sense,” said Fitzwilliams, whose hired inspection team earlier this month gave him a 450-page report detailing myriad issues at Sweetwater Lake’s buildings, like those leaking ceilings. “Let’s triage this for a couple years at best … to keep Adrienne’s business going and figure out what we need and what the state needs for them to run this as far as facilities. That starts with saying OK, this building can stay and this building can’t. Let’s get rid of these and replace them. In most cases, replacement will be cheaper than mitigation.”
Fitzwilliams is thinking short term and long term. Summer crowds are weeks away and interest in visiting the newest state park will be high. He’s not too worried about overnighters. There are only a handful of campsites available at the lake. But the weekend day traffic will be thick. He’s wondering how to handle the crowds while protecting the resource and community concerns.
Does weekend visitation to Sweetwater Lake need to be on a reservation system that has grown increasingly popular among Colorado land managers in recent years?
“Do you go to limit policy right away? That’s restrictive. Do you start there?” he said. “These are the questions we are asking. Do you say parking is only available in these spots and when it’s full … people have to turn around? We did that at Hanging Lake for years and people were angry.”
Mary Stephens worked at a summer camp on Sweetwater Lake in the 1980s. Her family has been in Sweetwater since the late 1800s and her family now runs Stephens Nursery on the Colorado River at Dotsero.
Stephens, who spoke last month at the meeting with Garfield and Eagle county commissioners, remembers when the Colorado River was open to public use in the early days of the pandemic without police or public land officials helping to manage the crowds. Now those crowds are going to start coming up to Sweetwater.
“We have trespassers. We have drunk drivers. We have speeding. We have more problems out there right now than we can handle,” said Stephens, who last year picked up 78 bags of trash along a 7-mile stretch of Colorado River Road as part of a community effort that now is crumbling because no one wants to walk on the side of the road.
“Nobody respects the community. The river. The land. If we are going to build it so they will come, we need to educate,” she said. “And who is going to educate? Who else can it be but us?”
Stephens is part of a growing chorus of Sweetwater residents vying for a role in the creation of the state park.
“If we don’t take care of our areas, our public areas and our private areas, Colorado is going to be trashed,” Stephens said. “So when you open this, we need to have a plan in place.”
This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins. >> Subscribe