Sweet relief as White River National Forest completes acquisition of Sweetwater Lake
Beloved 488-acre parcel will remain protected in perpetuity
Who saved the lake? Two years ago, the idea of preserving the Sweetwater Lake Ranch property as public land was just a big idea that started out with a small grassroots push.
On Tuesday, that effort crossed the finish line as the White River National Forest completed its acquisition of the 488-acre parcel, which sits adjacent to the Flat Tops Wilderness in Garfield County, and is accessed from western Eagle County.
The land acquisition, facilitated between The Conservation Fund and the U.S. Forest Service, will protect the pristine wildlife habitat and create new recreational access for the public to enjoy boating, fishing, swimming and camping the lake for perpetuity.
“It’s an incredible relief,” said Bergen Tjossem, the deputy director of the Eagle Valley Land Trust, which launched the Save the Lake campaign to bring attention to the effort. “Two years ago, when we were looking at the scale of this project, and all of the pieces and how many different checkpoints it would take to get there, it was daunting. So now that we’re there, the day is here, we’re exhilarated. We’re excited in the best way possible.”
‘So many champions’
The list is long when it comes to all of the pieces of support that made the effort a success, but Tjossem and Jessica Foulis, the executive director of Eagle Valley Land Trust, said every single person or entity that donated funds or wrote letters deserves the credit for saving the lake.
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That includes local middle schoolers who raised funds to locals who gave what they could in small chunks all the way up to big donations from entities like Eagle County, the town of Gypsum, Vail Resorts, the Aspen Skiing Co. and generous private donors.
All told, the local fundraising effort that quickly gained national attention netted around $1.2 million, Tjossem said.
“We’re just so grateful to have this role in our community that we’re here to make big, exciting things happen,” Foulis said. “It seemed almost impossible, but I think all the people that came together and worked really hard, the representatives from each organization who worked hard to make this happen, there are just so many champions. It’s really one of the examples of conservation bringing people together.”
A local effort gets national attention
Scott Fitzwilliams, the supervisor of the White River National Forest, said in a statement that “Sweetwater Lake has been cherished in this region for decades. We are thrilled to expand the public access to this area and very grateful for all the local support we received for this acquisition.”
The Conservation Fund purchased the land last year to prevent any potential development while the Forest Service awaited funding from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund for the project. Sweetwater Lake had been identified among the top 10 priority Land and Water Conservation Fund purchases nationwide.
“The local Sweetwater community was really involved in raising those initial funds, all those letters of support, and all that local support was what created this national attention that eventually propelled this project to one of the top 10 in the country as a funding priority,” Tjossem said. “There were so many people, all over our region, lending time, effort and letters of support to make this happen. Every donation, every letter made a massive impact.”
“I’m thrilled Sweetwater Lake will be officially incorporated into the White River National Forest after we secured full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund last year,” said U.S. Senator Michael Bennet in a statement. “This move not only protects Sweetwater Lake by making it public land, but also boosts Colorado’s economy and improves recreation access for the millions of people who visit the White River National Forest every year.”
“Sweetwater Lake is one of the largest and most pristine natural bodies of water in the Centennial State, and we’re ecstatic Coloradans and visitors will continue enjoying it thanks to the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” said U.S. Senator John Hickenlooper in a statement.
Justin Spring, the state director at The Conservation Fund, said in a statement that “we’re honored to play a role in protecting this Colorado gem for the benefit of the public and the wildlife.”
“Colorado’s Congressional delegation has worked hard to secure LWCF funding for Colorado, so we’re thrilled to see it go to such an exceptional project like Sweetwater Lake,” Spring said. “We’re also excited to announce our Sweetwater Lake Stewardship and Equity Fund, which will assist the Eagle Valley Land Trust and our agency partners in activating the property for public use and enhancing opportunities for underserved communities to enjoy the space for years to come.”
Tjossem and Foulis said the Eagle Valley Land Trust is working with the The Conservation Fund to help the U.S. Forest Service ensure that the property is an accessible community asset for generations to come.
The newly acquired land is largely open to the public. Ranch structures and some of the areas around them remain closed until the Forest Service completes its evaluation and long-term management plan for the area.
But while that work is ongoing, Tjossem said Tuesday was a day to breathe a long sigh of relief.
“The urgency from all the partners was incredible,” he said. “There weren’t going to be any more chances. This was our one shot.”