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Gypsum resident John Evancho paddles onto Sweetwater Lake on May 13, 2022 in Garfield County. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

GYPSUM — Sweetwater Lake is supposed to be the state’s 43rd state park. A 2019 “Save The Lake” fundraising campaign helped the White River National Forest land its largest contribution from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to acquire the 488-acre property above the Colorado River. A one-of-a-kind partnership with Colorado Parks and Wildlife is planned to modernize the property’s facilities and manage recreation at the remote lake surrounded by homes and wilderness at the end of a long dirt road. 

Now, the community of Sweetwater is raising a red flag. After two years of meetings with the Forest Service and CPW, a group of residents last week warned the federal and state agencies that the community is ready to stop cooperating and start fighting as plans unfold for a highly trafficked destination.

“I think we have moved from ‘save the lake’ to ‘save the community,’” said Janet Rivera, who raised her family near Sweetwater Lake.

The 11-member Sweetwater Lake community group — which has been meeting with the Forest Service, CPW and Eagle Valley Land Trust to hammer out a plan for the property — warned that  a lack of progress on short-term plans for the lake and its nearly 40-year operator is eroding their support for a state park. 

“We feel these meetings have been largely unproductive and are being used to make it seem as if we support the state park effort,” longtime Sweetwater resident Derrick Wiemer said, reading a letter outlining his group’s revolt at a meeting last Tuesday in Gypsum. “We also feel these meetings may potentially be used as a way to check a public input box … our trust continues to be broken.”

The Forest Service, CPW and Sweetwater community are creating a first-of-its-kind process for converting private property into a federally owned, state-managed park. Now the community is threatening to back out of the process and pull its support from the cooperative effort. Both the Forest Service and CPW have said community involvement is critical to the creation of a new park.

The community had initially discussed a possible conservation easement for the property as the Eagle Valley Land Trust launched its Save The Lake campaign to raise money. Then the White River National Forest stepped in with a proposal to apply for Land and Water Conservation Fund help. Along the way, Colorado Parks and Wildlife proposed a partnership with the Forest Service that would direct state funds toward managing the property and align with Gov. Jared Polis’ ardent push for more state parks. 

Details of the federal-state plan were murky when Polis stood atop a rocky bluff overlooking the lake in October 2021 and announced the state’s 43rd state park. White River National Forest officials apologized for not fully disclosing details of the plan with the local community before the announcement.

Scott Fitzwilliams, the head of the White River National Forest, has met several times with community members, promising to rebuild public trust after what he described as “a rushed and chaotic” process to create the partnership between the feds and state park officials. 

Gov. Jared Polis on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021 named Garfield County’s Sweetwater Lake as the 43rd Colorado state park. Behind Polis is, from right to left, state Rep. Perry Will; Dan Gibbs, the director of the Department of Natural Resources; state Rep. Dylan Roberts; Jacque Buchanan, deputy regional foresters for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region; Jessica Foulis, the executive director of the Eagle Valley Land Trust; and Dan Prenzlow, the director of Colorado Parks and Wildlife. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Adrienne Brink has spent close to 40 years at the lake, guiding thousands into the nearby Flat Tops Wilderness on her horses. The White River National Forest is the eighth owner of the Sweetwater Lake property she has worked under. None of the previous private owners invested in the property while they trumpeted plans for luxury communities, golf courses and even a water-bottling plant. 

So when the Forest Service first peeked inside the dilapidated cabins and restaurant where she has headquartered her AJ Brink Outfitters since the 1980s, it deemed several of the facilities uninhabitable. Last fall Brink turned away dozens of hunters who were unable to stay at the property.

Brink says she is nearing the collapse of her business without being able to open her restaurant or cabins. For more than a year the community group has pushed the Forest Service and the state to invest in those buildings so Brink can operate her business. 

Adrienne Brink came out to Sweetwater Lake above the Colorado River near Dotsero in 1969 for a backcountry horseback trip. She and her husband bought the horse packing guide service in 1975. The owners of Brink Outfitters bought the Sweetwater Lake Resort — cabins, restaurants, boat launch and a campground — in 1984. She’s seen seven owners of the 488-acre Sweetwater Lake property propose big development plans. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

But recent meetings have focused on long-term planning, with federal and state managers working toward a comprehensive proposal to vet through the required National Environmental Policy Act review, or NEPA. That NEPA process will identify alternatives and proposals for the future of the park with ample opportunity for public input. The process underway right now with the land managers and the community members is to develop that range of options for NEPA review. 

Finding a middle ground between that visionary planning and immediate needs is the crux of the community’s angst. Everyone seems to agree that the park should have limited camping to control crowding and trails for only hikers and horseback riders. But what about interim operations for Brink? Can the cabins and restaurant be repaired or restored to meet federal standards? Can short-term goals align with long-term development?

“We are trying to work with you to understand what it is you want … to then get a plan together. That’s the whole goal of this group is to try to figure out what you want,” said Jacob Brey, the deputy regional manager of CPW’s northwest region who is quick to point out that Sweetwater Lake is not a state park until the state agency and the Forest Service ink a deal. 

Right now there is only an agreement to pursue a deal. That agreement is pending as the agencies survey the property. The Forest Service has said repeatedly it needs the state’s financial help to manage Sweetwater Lake.

Brey said CPW has funds that could help restore the buildings, but those are not available until the agency and Forest Service sign a contract. And any investment needs to align with future plans that will be vetted in the intensive NEPA process, Brey said.

“We don’t want to do something in the short term that is not part of the long term,” he said. 

The 77-acre Sweetwater Lake in Garfield County will anchor a 488-acre new state park, which is owned by the White River National Forest but will be managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. (Todd Winslow Pierce, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Eagle Valley Land Trust organized the Save The Lake campaign and, along with The Conservation Fund, facilitated the sale from previous owners to the Forest Service. The trust has $1 million from The Conservation Fund to invest in the property to help improve access for underprivileged communities, but wants to see improvements evaluated in the lengthy NEPA process before investing in infrastructure. (NEPA evaluations offer the public an opportunity to scrutinize several alternative proposals. It is often a years-long process.)

“The people in this room have the biggest opportunity to influence the direction that we’re going by collaborating on the proposal that we’re going to put to NEPA,” said the trust’s Bergen Tjossem last week at the Gypsum Community Center. 

“But are you truly listening to us?” responded Sweetwater resident Larry Mabry. 

“At the end of the day you go back to where you came from and we live up here. This is for our future. And our past. Long term,” Mabry said. “Are you hearing what we are saying? Or are you manipulating us to get what you want? We have made no progress. We said this same thing for years and nobody has listened to us.”

The biweekly meetings between the Forest Service, CPW, the land trust and community group are being facilitated by CDR Associates, which also is helping CPW draft a master plan for the new Fishers Park State Park outside Trinidad. CDR Associates program manager Melissa Bade urged the Forest Service, CPW, land trust and community members to adopt “a creative mindset” and “think about why we want these different things and why they are so important to us.”

“How can we think about creative solutions to address these interests?” Bade said. 

The community members see a lot of their issues boiling down to the Forest Service conclusion that several of the buildings around the lake are not fit for public use. Members asked if the buildings could be designated as historical and repaired. Brink, the outfitter, is certain she can make repairs to improve the structures. 

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The top concern of community members has been maintaining the historical use of Sweetwater Lake as it has been for decades, with modest cabins, a few campsites, a restaurant and hay meadow supporting a horse operation. That’s the historical use that has kept Sweetwater from being overcrowded while serving the local community. The community group’s letter notes CPW’s criteria for a new state park includes providing community value. 

“Local economies and quality of life improve by having a state park,” reads CPW’s “future state parks criteria.”

“A new state park would directly and negatively affect our quality of life and provide no community value,” reads the letter from the Sweetwater Lake group. 

“We have to figure out how a state park is not a loss to the local community. And I don’t know how we do that,” Wiemer said during last week’s meeting in Gypsum. “But that is the common consensus feeling, that when something becomes a state park, it’s Denver then. It’s the voting population — the same ones who brought us wolves — now taking over our state parks. And so it loses its local use. That’s the fear that exists here.”

Jason Blevins

The Colorado Sun — Email: Twitter: @jasonblevins