Plans underway to make newly acquired Sweetwater Lake area newest Colorado state park; first state-federal partnership of its kind
The recently acquired land around Sweetwater Lake in remote northeastern Garfield County is set to become the newest Colorado state park, the first state-federal partnership of its kind.
Gov. Jared Polis made the official announcement Wednesday on site at Sweetwater Ranch, alongside the state Parks and Wildlife and Natural Resources directors, U.S. Forest Service officials and local elected officials and land conservation representatives.
The White River National Forest acquired the 488-acre Sweetwater Ranch on Aug. 31 through a federal Land and Water Conservation Fund purchase, which grew out of the Eagle Valley Land Trust’s “Save the Lake” campaign and other local fundraising efforts.
“This is a historic announcement,” Polis said in a phone interview Tuesday. “This will not only be Colorado’s first state park on federal land, it’s the first in the entire country under this arrangement.”
Polis touted Sweetwater for its natural splendor and potential to expand the state’s outdoor offerings.
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“Sweetwater Lake is simply gorgeous, and has great potential for even more recreational opportunities, conservation and education, and will have a strong economic benefit for the region,” Polis said.
This would be the second state park created during the Polis administration. Fishers Peak in Trinidad officially opened in fall 2020.
The Conservation Fund purchased the land around Sweetwater that same year in an effort 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.”
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.
The area was identified among the top 10 priority Land and Water Conservation Fund purchases nationwide, aimed at increasing public recreation opportunities and protecting the area’s wildlife habitat, cultural and scenic values.
The initial conservation fund purchase was made possible by a loan from Great Outdoors Colorado and local fundraising efforts including the Eagle Valley Land Trust’s “Save the Lake” campaign.
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 a private outfitter who continues to operate at the site, A.J. Brink, 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.
“Additional buildout will follow the completion of a long-term plan, in consultation with the public, for expanding and managing the recreational opportunities at Sweetwater Lake while preserving the unique, relatively undeveloped nature of the property,” according to a joint news release.
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.
Colorado Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Dan Gibbs said there are some co-managed state and federal sites on federal lands elsewhere in the country. This is the first effort to create a co-managed state park on federal land, he said.
“Sweetwater Lake is a hidden gem, both as a destination and gateway to the Flat Tops Wilderness,” Gibbs said. “The partnership formed to protect and manage this unique landscape is an extension of the state and federal commitment to shared stewardship.”
Added Fitzwilliams, “Working with the state to have (Sweetwater Lake) run as a state park is a way to get some things done to allow the public to enjoy it faster than if it was just the Forest Service.”
Also joining the governor for the announcement Wednesday were Deputy Regional Forester Jacque Buchanan, Eagle Valley Land Trust Executive Director Jessica Foulis and Eagle County Commissioner Jeannie McQueeney.
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or firstname.lastname@example.org.