Garfield County wants voice in plans to convert Sweetwater Lake to new state park
Colorado state and U.S. Forest Service officials might have gotten a bit ahead of themselves in announcing last fall that the newly acquired Sweetwater Lake area northeast of Glenwood Springs would become the newest state park.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams and new Colorado Parks and Wildlife Northwest Regional Manager Travis Black were both apologetic Wednesday in meeting with Garfield County commissioners, who called the agencies out for not including the county in any discussions before that announcement was made in October.
“I think you’re right, we dropped the ball here,” Fitzwilliams said, acknowledging Commission Chairman John Martin after he said commissioners were “somewhat miffed” that the county wasn’t consulted about the prospect of what would be the first-ever state-federal partnership to create a state park.
Martin was among the dignitaries on hand at Sweetwater Lake in remote Garfield County on Oct. 20, 2021, when Gov. Jared Polis was joined by CPW and other state, federal and local officials in announcing plans for the new state park.
But he said he was caught off guard by the announcement.
“We supported the acquisition and the conservation easements to save Sweetwater Lake as it is,” Martin said. “We didn’t support a state park, and were surprised the day of the announcement.”
Martin advised during the Wednesday work session that there’s a formal process to create a state park, and federal rules have to be followed before creating any sort of amenities on federal lands.
That includes reaching out to the affected county, he said.
Sweetwater Ranch is situated just outside the Flat Tops Wilderness Area in northeastern Garfield County, but is accessed via the Colorado River Road in Eagle County from Interstate 70 east of Glenwood Canyon.
Last August, the White River National Forest acquired the 488-acre ranch, which was formerly privately owned, through a federal Land and Water Conservation Fund purchase.
The acquisition grew out of the Eagle Valley Land Trust’s “Save the Lake” campaign and other local fundraising efforts, with letters of support from both Garfield and Eagle counties.
However, the Garfield County commissioners said Wednesday that the county’s support never envisioned a state park.
Any sort of recreational improvements on federal lands require working with all of the affected parties, including the county, Martin said.
“That hasn’t been done,” he said. “We need to know why it was nominated, what the economic benefits would be … I think we need to pull back a little bit, not get too excited, and discuss this.”
Fitzwilliams apologized for not including the county when the concept first came about. When the Forest Service acquired the land, the question became how it would be managed and who would be responsible.
“Admittedly, we kind of put our blinders on and started talking about how we could make this happen,” he said.
The state partnership seems to make sense, Fitzwilliams said, but there is still a lot of planning to do to ensure it’s done correctly and that the natural qualities the effort seeks to protect are not damaged.
“There’s a broad spectrum in how we can frame this,” he said, adding that the $9 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund put toward the purchase requires it to be open to the public.
“Whether we call it a state park or a Forest Service recreation area, whatever, people are going to be coming because now it’s public,” Fitzwilliams said.
Black also acknowledged the oversight in not including Garfield County in the formal memorandum of understanding to form the partnership. That will be corrected, he said.
“I do offer our apology on behalf of the state for not including you,” Black said. “We are very early on in the planning phase, and we want to make sure Garfield County is part of the process.”
That MOU is nonbinding in terms of committing the Forest Service to the establishment of a state park idea in the end, if another option is deemed to be better, Fitzwilliams said.
County Commissioner Mike Samson didn’t mince words in criticizing the state, and specifically the Polis administration, for getting ahead of itself in making the announcement.
“I am really upset with the state government for a lot of reasons, and this is just throwing gasoline on the fire,” Samson said. “If this is not set in stone, I think we need to back up a whole bunch here.”
Martin pointed to a variety of issues that would need to be addressed with any sort of recreational development, including traffic on the roads leading to the area and impacts on residents living in that area. Law enforcement and emergency services also need to be consulted, he said.
The interests of the existing outfitter who operates there, Adrian Brink of A.J. Brink Outfitters, also should be considered, as well as impacts on wildlife and game management, Martin said.
Brink also remotely attended the Wednesday meeting, and said she wants to ensure any campground improvements don’t encroach on the areas where she grazes her horses.
The development plan will also involve upgrading the water system at the resort, in which Brink also said she has an interest.
“I think there is an opportunity to do something limited, but we didn’t do the ‘save-the-lake’ just to have another big development there,” she said.
Preliminary concepts involve relocating and possibly expanding the campground, but keeping it relatively primitive, and creating access points to the lake, which currently is not easily accessible.