Sweetwater Partnership continues collaboration on long-term planning process at Sweetwater Lake

GYPSUM, Colo. – Nearly two years after the announcement of Colorado’s 43rd State Park at Sweetwater Lake, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Eagle Valley Land Trust (EVLT), and USFS White River National Forest (Sweetwater Partnership) reflect on collaboration efforts in preparation of starting the next step in long-term management planning for Sweetwater Lake, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process.

Since 2022, the Sweetwater Partnership has worked closely with the Town of Gypsum, Eagle and Garfield counties, the local Sweetwater community, and the greater public to gather input on short and long term management strategies. Representatives attended County Commissioner meetings, met with local and county officials, and held a series of public engagement opportunities.

Three initial public meetings were held in person as open houses in Sweetwater, Eagle, and Glenwood Springs at the end of January and first part of February of 2022. The purpose of these meetings was to inform the public of the partnership and their goals, share information about the site, and gain input on desired future recreation activities at Sweetwater Lake. The partners heard about the importance of continuing recreation on site, specifically equestrian day use and overnight camping as well as maintaining unique characteristics of the area and its history. The meeting series also underscored the value of engaging the local community in the planning process.

On May 18, 2022 the partners held a community meeting with the local Sweetwater community. From this meeting, the community requested to meet with the partners more frequently, and as a result the Sweetwater Lake Working Group (SLWG) was formed. Different from the Sweetwater Partnership, the SLWG consisted of representatives of the Sweetwater community selected by the Sweetwater community members to help provide local knowledge and input into the management and design process.

“We understand having a state park in their backyard will change things for the Sweetwater community,” said Northwest Region Deputy Manager Jacob Brey. “Being able to hear and understand their concerns as we move forward was and is still important to us.”

Starting in October of 2022, the partnership met biweekly with the SLWG in Gypsum through May of 2023. In addition to local community members and the partnership team, representatives from Garfield and Eagle counties attended these meetings facilitated by CDR Associates. Together, the group discussed ideas related to upcoming seasons at Sweetwater including what services could be offered by AJ Brink, the outfitter who has operated out of Sweetwater for many decades. Discussions also centered around long-term site planning and management.

From these meetings the Sweetwater Partnership heard a number of recommendations from the local community that will be considered during the NEPA process:

  • Importance of Equestrian Use: The SLWG highlighted that equestrian use on the site contributes both to the recreational opportunities as well as character of the site. As a result, the partnership is planning for both day-use equestrian access as well as building out a number of overnight equestrian campsites for equestrian users.

  • Campsites: The SLWG expressed interest in moving the existing campsites away from the shoreline to allow space for a new day-use area and provide more privacy for campers in addition to adding a few sites. Based on this feedback, the partnership is considering limiting the number of campsites to create more of a private camping experience as well as adding day-use facilities where existing campsites are located, including additional lake access.

  • Cabins: The SLWG noted the importance of the cabins on the site which aid in telling the story of Sweetwater while also honoring the number of families and generations who have spent time at Sweetwater Lake. The group recommended retaining the cabins for future use. Currently, the cabins have various health and safety issues that do not allow for public occupancy, but the partnership is exploring opportunities to retain some of the cabins while also building new cabins with the intent of maintaining the site’s western style and character.

These are just a few examples of ways in which the local community has provided direct input into the direction of the planning process.

“We will begin our detailed environmental analysis through the NEPA process later this summer or fall, which will give the public multiple opportunities to weigh-in on specific proposals,” said White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams. We look forward to working closely with our formal cooperating agencies – Eagle and Garfield counties, the Town of Gypsum and CPW, our many partners, and the general public during the NEPA process.”

In March of 2023, a fourth virtual public meeting was held with over 100 participants from the broader public in attendance. At this virtual meeting, the partners presented on the history of Sweetwater Lake, updates on where they were in the planning process and site information collected, and next steps for participants across Colorado. At the end the Sweetwater Partnership launched the Sweetwater Lake Online Survey to collect insight on stakeholder interests in Park planning including recreational uses, services, and facilities/infrastructure. The survey received 675 responses as well as 251 open-ended survey comments.

Survey results showed broad interest in not over-developing the site while also maintaining natural and infrastructure elements that make Sweetwater unique, including the restaurant and cabins. The survey also provided insight as to how visitors anticipate using the site – day-use recreation, lake access, horseback riding, and camping were among top priorities for survey participants.

Feedback from these engagement efforts have provided the Sweetwater Partnership with valuable insight, and will help to inform the long-term proposal for development at Sweetwater Lake. “We have been listening closely to the local community and public over the past year and we look forward to more specific discussions with the public and our cooperating agencies as we move into our environmental analysis and NEPA process,” said Eagle-Holy Cross District Ranger Leanne Veldhuis.

While the group focused on public engagement, work was also being done at Sweetwater Lake. In 2022, the partnership undertook several projects including the purchase and installation of a new boat dock to improve access to the lake, resource inventories of the property to help guide management decisions, as well as the enhancement of amenities for visitors to the Sweetwater property.

Funding was provided by the EVLT managed Sweetwater Lake Stewardship & Equity Fund to hire two Forest Service staff to assist in the maintenance of the site, while working to educate the public on changes to the Sweetwater property. Additionally, EVLT has approved funding to provide site visitor amenities, such as portable lavatories, and to provide financial assistance to the existing outfitter/concessionaire during this transitional phase at the Sweetwater property.

“Over the last two years, the partnership has continued to work together on developing a long-term management proposal for Sweetwater Lake to allow for improved public access while protecting the site’s social, natural, cultural resource values,” said CPW Park Manager Mark Lehman. “That work has helped create a road map to where we are today, and as we head into the next big phase of this which is the NEPA processes.”

The NEPA process is expected to start in late summer or fall of this year. To stay up to date on what’s next for the project, members of the public are encouraged to visit evlt.org/sweetwater.

About the Sweetwater Partnership
On August 31, 2021 the Forest Service closed on the purchase of the 486-acre Sweetwater Lake area property. The Conservation Fund had purchased the property from a group of private investors a year earlier to hold it for eventual Forest Service purchase. Local governments including counties and towns, commercial entities, non-profit organizations, and individuals alike came together to provide funding and support for this amazing acquisition. A partnership was formed between Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Eagle Valley Land Trust, and USFS White River National Forest to create and implement a long-term plan improving public access to Sweetwater Lake, enhance the recreation opportunities historically offered in the Sweetwater Lake area and protect the social and natural characteristics of the area.