Trust Our Land | Here’s where we’re at with Sweetwater Lake
by Bergen Tjossem
Four years ago, a beloved local property, Sweetwater Lake, went up for sale after development plans failed to materialize once again. It had been on the verge of private development for decades. The most recent proposal? Luxury homes, a golf course, and even a water bottling plant. There’s one thing that wasn’t included in the proposal, however – public access.
Community members reached out to Eagle Valley Land Trust (EVLT) and the Conservation Fund (TCF), a national conservation nonprofit, for help conserving the property before it went to the highest bidder.
A variety of conservation options were vetted, including private acquisition and conservation of the property, U.S. Forest Service (USFS) ownership, State ownership, and others. EVLT worked with advocates and through a vast network of conservation buyers, but a private buyer did not materialize. Ownership by the USFS made the most sense. They were not only entrusted with the care of the surrounding White River National Forest (WRNF), but also had access to acquisition funding, the primary barrier to protecting the lake, from the Land & Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).
To secure funding from the highly competitive Congressionally-allocated LWCF, the team needed a competitive application bolstered by local fundraising and support. Here the “Save the Lake” campaign was born – a grassroots coalition of community members facilitated by EVLT and TCF to help protect the beloved property
The Save The Lake Campaign launched into action to help purchase the property and transfer it to US Forest Service ownership before it was sold to the next developer. Eagle County, the Town of Gypsum, and the Town of Eagle all made major contributions.
Hundreds of donors made contributions of all sizes and wrote letters of support. And it worked – The Conservation Fund, with support from a Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) loan, purchased the property from the developers. Congress caught wind of the campaign’s energy – the local action galvanized a regionally unprecedented $8.5 million request from the Land & Water Conservation Fund after it ranked in the top 10 priority projects in the country in 2020. That funding allowed the WRNF to purchase the property from The Conservation Fund both ahead of schedule and under budget.
As the Save The Lake campaign progressed, one thing was clear: many in our community were skeptical and concerned that the USFS wouldn’t have the budget or staffing to steward and protect the beloved property in perpetuity. While a public bidding process for a concessionaire was a possibility, that would come with its own risks of overdevelopment since a private company would need to generate a significant profit to stay viable, while also lacking law enforcement and wildlife management authority in a remote part of the state.
State Park Announcement
Just over a month after the USFS purchased the property, Governor Jared Polis, looking out over the property’s northeast bluff, announced the Department of Natural Resources’ ambition to collaborate with the White River National Forest to create Colorado’s newest State Park at Sweetwater Lake. This type of state-federal partnership hadn’t been done before, but it promised enhanced management and stewardship capacity thanks to Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s recreation, wildlife, and conservation-balancing expertise.
The announcement’s innovative approach to land management reached far corners of the United States. But at home, some folks, including donors and advocates of the campaign, felt they had been misled. Had a State Park been the real objective the whole time? Many stakeholders in our community were troubled by the announcement and expressed concerns that the project was progressing too quickly.
Though CPW, the entity that manages State Parks, had been a campaign partner from the beginning, a State Park was not part of the Save The Lake campaign’s vision or plan. In other words, the campaign did not fundraise to create a State Park – EVLT, TCF, and the Save The Lake coalition stepped in to purchase and protect the vulnerable property before it was sold for private development. EVLT was not involved in the State Park determination or declaration, but has a vested interest in the long-term stewardship of the property.
Many local stakeholders irked by the announcement were concerned that a State Park was not the right fit for the beloved, striking, and storied property. But the benefit of a CPW-managed, USFS-owned State Park is the opportunity to operate in creative ways to meet unique local challenges and conditions. CPW is well-funded, meaning they don’t need to rely on traffic to the area to make a profit, and have the authority to enforce laws. Sweetwater could be a State Park like no other, offering relatively small-scale nature-based recreation opportunities that protect the site’s natural and cultural resources.
The Public Engagement Process
CPW, WRNF, EVLT, and other partners, working with interested community members, collected and leaned into the local feedback and concerns. First by hosting open houses at Sweetwater, Gypsum, and Glenwood Springs. Then, by opening an online comment form that received over 230 comments. The collaborative partnership created a major opportunity for community engagement.
With so many community members and Coloradoans interested in weighing in on the future of Sweetwater Lake, CPW hired CDR Associates to facilitate a robust year-long stakeholder engagement process. They conducted interviews, analyzed the comment forms, circulated a formal survey, and summarized results in a variety of reports to inform a collective vision for the property (Links available at www.evlt.org/sweetwater).
CDR also facilitated a biweekly meeting from October 2022 to May 2023 with the Sweetwater Lake Working Group and staff from CPW, WRNF, and EVLT to delve into local concerns around the creation and management of a future park. We heard that many in the SLWG were concerned that traffic would increase dramatically, the character of the area would be lost, the property would be overdeveloped, and the decades-old restaurant would be lost, among many other things.
This collaborative planning method comes with challenges. Sweetwater Lake is a magnificent and special place. Most stakeholders have specific, often decades-old ties to the property and powerful emotional attachments to the outcome.
The meeting series was designed to examine opportunities within the property’s legal, structural, and physical constraints, but also to creatively work towards a common vision for the property’s attributes – everything from trails, to buildings, to campsites, to protecting the local elk, moose, and eagles.
The site presents a long list of complicated conundrums. For example, how can the managers improve equitable access without opening it to overcrowding? How can a food-service operation be financially viable without increasing traffic to the site? How can equestrian users, picnickers, and campers use the site in harmony? How can overnight and day use infrastructure fit into the existing developed footprint without detracting from the character of the area? How can raptors, rare flowers, and winter elk habitat flourish alongside recreation?
These discussions were challenging, impassioned, and often heated as participants searched for common ground while trying to envision a future that would meet a variety of needs for locals and visitors alike on this newly public land.
The Next Step, The National Environmental Policy Act Process
The task is clear: To create a plan for Sweetwater Lake that serves the needs of locals, Coloradoans, and Americans now and far into the future, while retaining the character of the area, the critical wildlife habitats, and the remarkable landscapes that make Sweetwater Lake such a gem.
It’s difficult not to fall in love with the Sweetwater Lake property. If there’s one thing I’ve observed over the past four years, it’s that folks contributing to this process are dedicated to honoring its legacy; to creating something that serves our community now and continues to inspire future generations the way it has for decades.
No long-term plan, formally called a “Proposed Action,” currently exists, but we’re making progress. WRNF, CPW, EVLT Cooperating Agencies including Eagle and Garfield Counties and the Town of Gypsum are developing a plan rooted in community feedback. The plan will include recently completed natural and cultural resource inventories as well as infrastructure improvements.
Opportunities for public comment are far from over. Once the Proposed Action is completed in the coming months, it will be presented to the public in accordance with The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). You will be invited to share your feedback during this rigorous public engagement process – it requires at least a 30-day public comment period where you can read the proposed action in its entirety and formally comment.
Announcements and information about the process will be available at www.evlt.org/sweetwater as they are available.
Sweetwater Lake is now public land, forever. While a plan for the long-term management and stewardship of the property is still underway, we’re confident that we’ll be able to strike the right balance between conservation, recreation, and cultural heritage. We know that Sweetwater is a special place; we don’t take the responsibility lightly. We’re honored to be part of the process alongside our community to ensure Sweetwater’s legacy lives on, forever.
Bergen Tjossem is the Eagle Valley Land Trust’s Deputy Director. To learn more about EVLT’s conservation work, visit www.evlt.org.