A ‘sweet spot’ for Sweetwater Lake: Polis unveils plans to make newly-acquired area newest state park
Colorado’s 43rd state park will create the first state-federal partnership of its kind
SWEETWATER LAKE — Standing atop a rocky overhang with snowcapped peaks behind him, a pristine mountain lake below and an impossibly blue sky overhead, Gov. Jared Polis quoted American naturalist Henry David Thoreau as he announced Colorado’s newest state park.
“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads,” Polis said Wednesday. “Looking at this view, that’s pretty hard to dispute.”
Yeah, talk about heaven — or at least a little slice of it. The land surrounding Sweetwater Lake in remote northeastern Garfield County is about as stunning as it gets in a state full of postcard views. And now it’s set to become Colorado’s 43rd state park. It’s the second state park to be created under Polis, and it’s also the first state-federal partnership of its kind.
The park sits on U.S. Forest Service land but will be managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife with input from local stakeholders.
The White River National Forest acquired the 488-acre Sweetwater Ranch on Aug. 31 through a federal Land and Water Conservation Fund purchase that grew out of the Eagle Valley Land Trust’s “Save the Lake” campaign and other local fundraising efforts.
Jessica Foulis, the executive director of the Eagle Valley Land Trust, fought back tears Wednesday afternoon as she recounted how a small grassroots effort to preserve the cherished property from private development succeeded through sheer will and teamwork.
“When this project began, it was a simple vision: We were about to lose this community asset, a Colorado gem in the purest sense,” Foulis said. “At the time it was far-fetched, even with an organization like the Conservation Fund on board leading the effort. It was a big, expensive project and we likely only had one shot.”
But as the Save the Lake movement grew, from residents in both Garfield and Eagle County chipping in with what they could, followed by local towns like Gypsum and Eagle making considerable donations, to Eagle County making a one-to-one donation on funds, the momentum began to swing.
Foulis said no donation summed up the grassroots effort more than the one from Glenwood Springs Middle School, where students rallied around the cause and chipped in — even with quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies. All those small pieces led to the big purchase by the Conservation Fund to prevent potential development of the privately held inholdings.
Once the land came into the U.S. Forest Service fold, White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the challenge was to find a way to properly manage it.
“We don’t have the funds or staffing to be able to do what really needs to happen there,” Fitzwilliams said. “Through conversations with (CPW Director) Dan Prenzlow’s staff, we realized there’s an opportunity to do something different here. By leveraging resources to manage it, we can do some great things to create a great experience for the public.”
The final chapter in a long story
The history of the property is a story unto itself, full of twists and turns and colorful characters. There’s a cave on the property that includes pictographs carved into the walls by members of the Ute Tribe, the area’s first inhabitants.
Among the many private landowners who held the property were famed Denver Post cartoonist and illustrator Paul Gregg, who owned the area for about 30 years, as well as a Chicago gangster Leland Varain — known in the underworld as Louis “Two Guns” Alterie.
Over the years, the privately-owned Sweetwater Lake Resort had been proposed for golf course and residential development, and even for a spring water bottling plant.
Adrienne Brink first came to the lake in 1969 for a horseback trip, and has hosted campers at the lake since 1984 after she and her husband took over management of the property while running their outfitting business. Brink stood in back of the assembled crowd Wednesday as Polis made his big announcement. She said she liked the various owners over the years, but she could never embrace the vision of trophy homes or a private golf course gobbling up the pristine wilderness.
“I’m thrilled it’s preserved,” she said. “We’re through the hurdle of it being preserved. That was what was important to us. It’s a natural lake surrounded by public lands. I just can’t imagine something else.”
She said residents in the area are excited, too, that the lake property will be permanently saved, although it will take some getting used to as more visitors make their way up a “dead-end road” to discover the new park.
“They don’t want thousands of people up and down the road,” she said. “The road doesn’t warrant that. And the lake itself has hardly any shoreline.”
Public acquisition of the ranch property significantly increases public access to the lake. A Forest Service campground is situated near the lake, but lacks direct access, Fitzwilliams noted.
“We’ve had a campground there for a long time, but it’s in a terrible location and does not have good access to the lake,” he said.
Aside from buildings associated with Brink’s outfitting business, there’s little infrastructure in place to facilitate public recreation, Fitzwilliams said.
Some improvements, including a new boat launch area, are expected to be available to the public by June 2022.
Fitzwilliams said planning for the park will follow the federal National Environmental Policy Act procedures. That’s likely to involve a determination for Categorical Exclusion, or possibly a more extensive Environmental Assessment under the federal law, Fitzwilliams said.
The proposed new state park also builds on the Polis administration’s shared stewardship initiative with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, focusing on outdoors and public lands and investing in the state’s $12.2 billion outdoor recreation and tourism economy.
This summer, Polis signed several pieces of legislation related to the outdoors, including the Keep Colorado Wild Annual Pass bill, which created a lower-cost state park and public lands pass, and the Outdoor Equity Grant Program, increasing access and opportunities for underserved youth and their families to enjoy Colorado’s outdoors, according to the release.
Finding the ‘sweet spot’
Flanking Polis on Wednesday were Dan Gibbs, the executive director of the state’s Department of Natural Resources, Dan Prenzlow, the director of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Jacque Buchanan, the deputy regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service, Foulis, and state representatives Dylan Roberts and Perry Will. Roberts, a Democrat, represents Routt and Eagle Counties. Will, a Republican, spent four decades working for CPW before being elected to the statehouse for District 57, which encompasses Garfield, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties.
Also on hand were commissioners from Eagle and Garfield counties, representatives from Great Outdoors Colorado and the Conservation Fund, among others.
All played a critical role in a process that could’ve broken down over any number of issues between local, state and federal agencies or political partisanship. But the common thread of shared stewardship is what carried the project across the finish line, Buchanan said.
“I will tell you, in my 30 years working with the Forest Service, you don’t often get to be a part of something in this time and age that’s the first,” she said. “And this is the first in the nation. I am so proud and excited to be a part of that and to have the great state of Colorado as our partner.”
“It took a team effort to get here and it will take a team effort to move it forward,” Buchanan added. “But I have no doubt that we’re all going to be proud at the end of the day when we get this up and running. And with folks like the outfitters who have been here for 30 and 40 years, and the history, for us to be able to maintain that heritage while opening it up to a wider public access, that’s a pretty sweet spot.”
Will, in a nod to Foulis’ emotional speech, said Sweetwater Lake represents all that’s great about Colorado.
“When you were speaking, that hit me too,” he said. “If you’re not passionate about something, it’s not worth doing. This is worth doing.”
John Stroud with the Post Independent contributed reporting.