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A lake surrounded by mountains.
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.

The 13 meetings over the past eight months between Sweetwater community members and the Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife were meant to hammer out a rough-draft plan for the proposed new state park at Sweetwater Lake. 

As the Forest Service prepares to enter a formal environmental review of what could happen at Sweetwater Lake in Garfield County, there is no plan and little agreement. There is a lot of frustration. 

“We have a choice. We are either going to manage it before everyone comes or we are going to manage it after the chaos,” White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said Tuesday at the final meeting between the agencies and a Sweetwater community group in Eagle. “No matter what, it’s going to get discovered. We have a choice to figure this out before they all come up or we wait for the chaos to come.”

Fitzwilliams was frustrated Tuesday night. So were the members of the community. Perhaps it was fitting that in the final moments of the last meeting with the Sweetwater Lake Working Group, the lights in the Eagle conference room went dark.

The Sweetwater community doesn’t want the state to manage their quiet corner of Colorado. They really don’t want Colorado Parks and Wildlife to call Sweetwater Lake a “state park.” When Gov. Jared Polis stood atop a rocky outcropping over the lake in October 2021 and announced a unique partnership between Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the White River National Forest, he said the lake had been saved. 

Private developers had spent decades scheming plans for the 488-acre property. Golf courses, luxury homes. Even a water-bottling plant. The Forest Service took over the property adjacent to the Flat Tops Wilderness in the summer of 2021 after securing an $8.5 million grant from the Land and Water Conservation Fund as part of a deal involving The Conservation Fund and public fundraising by the Eagle Valley Land Trust. 

The plan calls for the state to manage the federal land as a state park, which aligns with Polis’ push for more parks. But unlike the new Fishers Peak State Park in Trinidad, Sweetwater Lake is surrounded by homes at the end of a 12-mile dirt road. 

“We feel very strongly that this was just a game to say that they’ve listened,” the 11-member working group said in a statement to The Colorado Sun. “We were under the impression that these sessions were going to help CPW show us that they can be a great steward and neighbor. The only thing we feel that we hear from the partners is regulatory excuses on why certain things cannot be done and desires to build Sylvan Lake, but with more administrative housing.”  

Not much has changed up Sweetwater Creek for decades. The whole plan to build a park to host hordes has not settled well in the quiet enclave. They often say they were “duped” by the trumpeted “Save the Lake” campaign that swept the property from private developers into the hands of some 334 million owners

A group of about a dozen community members started meeting with state and Forest Service officials last October with a plan to forge alternatives that could be considered under a formal National Environmental Policy Act — or NEPA — review, which is required for all major projects on federal land. 

The meetings were cordial, but heated. The community members saw their quality of life threatened by the state park. They worried about wildlife — calving elk, bears, peregrines, bald eagles and moose — impacted by development. They pointed to the crowds that regularly fill the nearby Sylvan Lake State Park as a warning of what was coming. 

“The developing and marketing of a park will detract from the enjoyment of our unique environment, damage the ecosystem, and destroy the character of the area,” the community group wrote in a statement outlining their concerns when the meetings began last October. The working group wanted to protect historical uses around the lake — hiking, fishing and horseback riding. 

The Forest Service is reluctant to pour public money into dilapidated buildings used by the 41-year outfitter at Sweetwater Lake, Adrienne Brink. The feds have shut down the buildings, including a restaurant and housing for Brink’s seasonal employees. The agency wants to improve a tired campground at the lake and provide better access to the lake.

There are myriad other issues where the community and the land managers struggle to find common ground.

“There are far more items that we haven’t agreed on than any that we have,” reads the statement the group sent to The Colorado Sun. “We came to the table to give a little and take a little, knowing that change is inevitable, but we’re not comfortable letting them pretend that we now trust them to go and do a design for NEPA.”

Protecting critical character and natural resources while allowing increased access and recreation is the crux of concerns swirling around Sweetwater Lake. The same could be said of just about every corner of Colorado feeling growth pressure right now. 

The passion of the community members is palpable. They say they are in an existential fight to protect a rare place that has remained largely unchanged for nearly a century. They proposed the “Sweetwater History and Preservation Area,” with a small campground, renovated historic cabins and horseback and hiking trails, all designed for a limited number of visitors. 

The community hopes their plan can become an alternative under the NEPA review, which typically identifies three or four possible options for development — often with a do-nothing alternative. The working group can’t seem to get an answer on whether their plan will be considered. They say they are disillusioned by the plan and the process. 

They wonder if any of their input over the past eight months will be considered. 

“My hope going forward is that you heard us,” Sweetwater resident Katie Langdon said Tuesday as the meeting ended. 

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Fitzwilliams acknowledged the group’s disagreement over state management. But the budget-strapped Forest Service needs the state to help manage its newest acreage.

“If we don’t have a partner of that stature to help take care of things, none of the things you want will happen,” he said. 

Jason Blevins

The Colorado Sun — Email: Twitter: @jasonblevins