This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
SWEETWATER LAKE — When the U.S. Forest Service acquired Sweetwater Lake in 2021, the agency did not pick up all the water rights associated with the property that is slated for development as Colorado’s newest state park.
The Conservation Fund, which acquired the property in 2020, retained water rights that did not transfer over when the conservation group sold the property to the Forest Service last year.
That troubles Garfield County’s commissioners, who are demanding details of the complex deal that landed the private acres in federal hands and how the new state park will be managed.
“The general concerns of Garfield County concern this entire transaction, both the money side of it as well as the planning and the agencies following their own procedures, rules and regulations,” commissioner Tom Jankovsky said earlier this week as the three-member board signed a letter sent to the Forest Service.
The overlapping state and federal processes to develop the park have not gone smoothly. A longtime outfitter at the lake is struggling to bring old buildings up to federal standards, fearing her decades-old outfitting business could be lost. Locals wonder if the now state-managed federal lands will draw unsustainable crowds to the remote lake at the end of a dirt road in Garfield County.
“Are we being stewards of the land if we develop Sweetwater Lake into a park?” asked Mary Stephens, who is raising a fifth generation of her family in the Sweetwater community and spoke before the Colorado Parks and Wildlife commission meeting in Edwards on Thursday afternoon, shortly before the commission toured the lake property. “What is wrong with keeping the lake in as much of its natural state for people to experience Colorado’s historical heritage at its best?”
And the commissioners in Garfield County are feeling excluded from the process as plans unfold. They are a board that has long looked warily at growing federal acreage inside the county and the letter they sent outlined a litany of concerns.
The commissioners did not give taxpayer dollars to the fundraising campaign to help the Forest Service acquire the property, which has been eyed for decades by developers with plans for homes, golf courses and even a water bottling plant.
Now they have questions. They want intensive environmental review of everything proposed at the property, including a permit allowing Colorado Parks and Wildlife to manage the area as a state park and how that jibes with White River National Forest priorities for wildlife and neighboring wilderness.
“Until all of this required analysis and decision-making is properly undertaken, no new amenity development should occur at the lake and the low-intensity, status-quo utilization must remain,” reads the commissioners’ letter, which urges the Forest Service to pursue the most intensive environmental review of projects at the lake. A lesser review would “give short shrift to the obvious potential for significant impacts on wildlife, plant and fish species and the human environment surrounding the lake that will surely result from intensive utilization of Sweetwater Lake as a state park.”
The commissioners have voiced these issues with the Forest Service in the past couple months. But they added a new concern in the letter. They wondered why The Conservation Fund, when it sold the lake and surrounding acreage to the Forest Service last year, retained “a substantial amount of water rights.”
Justin Spring, who shepherded the deal for The Conservation Fund, said his group retained “some real minor water rights” and is looking for “a good conservation home” for the water rights that could benefit wildlife.
White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams this week consulted with his water rights specialists and “really learned something,” he said.
Stemming from federal court rulings from 1987 to 2014 as part of the Snake River Basin Adjudication — considered the largest water rights lawsuit in the nation with more than 150,000 claims to determine water rights in the Idaho river basin — the Forest Service can only acquire water rights that it will immediately place into a “beneficial use.” And water flowing in a stream, while pleasant, is not legally a beneficial use. Colorado water law also requires that owners of water rights use them or lose them. There was more water with the property than the Forest Service could use, “so we legally could not buy them,” Fitzwilliams said.
“I believe in my heart that sooner or later that place was going to be developed into something we all hate, because they had so much water. They had enough water to build condos, homes, a golf course and a water-bottling plant,” Fitzwilliams said. “We are not building anything giant there, so we could only purchase what we could demonstrate we needed for future use.”
Fitzwilliams and his team are responding to the commissioners’ letter as if it is a public records request. He said he’s “100% confident” he can show the board that every part of the deal was legitimate.
“There is not a process I have worked with in my 31 years here — from leasing land to ski areas to permitting mining, grazing and logging — that is more reviewed, scrutinized and reviewed again by all levels of the agency than land adjustments, purchases and sales. None,” Fitzwilliams said.
During the tour of the property on Thursday, Fitzwilliams led the CPW board — which includes three new commissioners appointed by Gov. Jared Polis this month — to an overlook over the lake. Down below, a moose gazed up at the group from a spring-fed marsh at the top of the lake.
“Not too hard to understand why the passions around this property are so strong,” he said.
This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins. >> Subscribe