Interim plan for Sweetwater Lake focuses on health-safety concerns, keeping outfitter in business
U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials want to move fast on a short-term plan for the newly acquired Sweetwater Lake property. At the same time, local governments are requesting they move slowly when it comes to long-term planning for a new state park.
With summer fast approaching and the likelihood that the public will want to explore the newest 488 acres that became part of the White River National Forest late last year, White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said his office is in “triage” mode in terms of how to handle visitation ahead of developing a formal management plan in conjunction with Parks and Wildlife.
“We have to figure out how to deal with that, because people are coming,” Fitzwilliams said during a joint meeting Monday afternoon between the Garfield and Eagle county commissioners in Glenwood Springs.
Sweetwater Ranch and the lake itself are located in remote northeast Garfield County, but are accessed from the Eagle County side via the Colorado River Road north of Dotsero.
The lake and the surrounding land is open to the public, same as other parts of the forest, Forest Service officials have said.
However, closures in certain areas should be anticipated, such as near an active eagle nest, and the area is generally not yet ready to handle a lot of visitors, White River National Forest Public Information Officer David Boyd said in a previous statement to the Post Independent.
For now, Fitzwilliams said his office is working to address several health and safety issues regarding the old lodge and restaurant buildings and some cabins that came with the land deal, and which are used by a private outfitter who operates on the former ranch property.
Adrian Brink of AJ Brink Outfitters also attended the Monday meeting, asking that her business be allowed to continue to operate through this season, even as those repairs and other property assessments are being done.
“We haven’t decided to do anything yet,” Fitzwilliams said.
As things stands, though, “right now, the lodge is not fit for human occupation,” he said, describing extensive roof leaks and mold concerns following several years’ worth of deferred maintenance.
“Anything we do with these buildings is short-term, until we figure out how it fits into the master plan,” he added.
Aside from the buildings, there are some site liability concerns, such as an unprotected lake overlook that could use some safety fencing, he said.
Both sets of county commissioners asked if some leftover Eagle Valley Land Trust funds from the Save the Lake campaign that helped put Sweetwater Ranch in public hands could be used to help with those temporary upgrades.
Bergen Tjossem, the deputy director for Eagle Valley Land Trust, also attended the meeting along with Executive Director Jessica Foulis.
Tjossem said that about $118,000 in donations that came in after the Save the Lake campaign concluded in 2020 are still designated for use in some way at Sweetwater. But the nonprofit organization’s board would need a formal proposal before it could agree to release those funds, Tjossem said.
The joint meeting also served as a forum for the Garfield County commissioners to reiterate their concerns about plans to make Sweetwater Lake the newest state park.
“I have to be honest with you, I’m not crazy about this deal at all, and I don’t think it was handled well,” Commissioner Mike Samson said, leveling criticism primarily at Gov. Jared Polis who made the announcement about plans to develop a new state park in conjunction with the Forest Service during a press conference on site at Sweetwater Lake last October.
“We were caught off guard by that,” said Samson, who in 2019 joined Commission Chairman John Martin in a 2-1 vote to support the Save the Lake campaign.
“Things changed very quickly, and very deceivingly in my mind,” Samson said, offering that what they thought was an effort to prevent massive private development at Sweetwater turned into potentially a state park, instead.
Garfield Commissioner Tom Jankovsky voted against supporting that effort over concerns about handing private property over to the public trust.
He questioned the financial transaction that gave ownership of the property to the Forest Service, which came about as a result of the EVLT campaign and eventually $8.5 million in funding from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Jankovsky requested full accounting of that transaction, and said it appears there should be some money left over between the various entities that were involved in bringing the deal to fruition.
“Looking at the numbers I have in front of me, it stinks,” Jankovsky said.
Fitzwilliams said he can provide that documentation.
“I’m very confident I can make it smell better,” he said.
Both the Garfield and Eagle county commissioners also called on the state and federal officials involved to take a slow approach as they plan for a state park, and to make sure the residents who will be most impacted on both sides of the county line are included in those discussions.
“We are thrilled that Sweetwater is protected, but we have talked about our shared shock over it automatically becoming a state park,” Eagle County Commission Chairwoman Jeanne McQueeney said.
“What we wanted to ensure was that it has a future that doesn’t include private development, and that we can work with Parks and Wildlife (CPW) and the Forest Service to come up with a service plan,” she said.
The Eagle County commissioners indicated they share Garfield County’s concerns that the area not be developed to the same degree as other state parks in the region, such as Sylvan Lake south of Eagle.
“It has to continue to be what the community up there wants and expected,” Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry said.
Garfield County Commissioner John Martin emphasized that the historic structures on the site should be preserved as part of any development plans.
“There is some history there that we’d like to preserve,” Martin said, offering up efforts to restore the Mount Vernon and Monticello historical landmarks in Virginia as examples.
Martin added that he’s opposed to any increased federal land ownership in Colorado, but he’s hopeful the joint park planning by CPW and the Forest Service will both preserve and improve the Sweetwater Lake amenities.
Fitzwilliams reiterated that park development is still several years off, and would have to go through the formal National Environmental Policy Act review.
“We’re not ready for that process yet,” he said.
Several residents of the Sweetwater area also spoke at the Monday meeting calling for a slow approach and asking that their concerns about traffic and potential overdevelopment be heard.