Letter: The Sweetwater conundrum | VailDaily.com

Letter: The Sweetwater conundrum

Once a local secret, Sweetwater Lake, located in both Eagle and Garfield counties, was designated the newest Colorado State Park by Gov. Polis in October 2021. Except, it has yet to be officially made a state park. This idyllic wilderness area is currently in triage while its stakeholders are scrambling to collaborate on cohesive short and long-term plans to protect the park’s unique ecosystem, develop strategies for the predicted influx of visitors, and determine what the future holds for the community of Sweetwater.

Launched in 2019, The Eagle Valley Land Trust’s “Save the Lake” campaign was unexpectedly successful. Through a collaboration of federal and local governments and grassroots community efforts, the 422-acre Sweetwater Lake was purchased for approximately $9 million dollars and placed into the hands of the U.S. Forest Service. This unprecedented land purchase is federally owned, managed by the state, and treasured by the local community and the 336 million new owners of Colorado’s 43rd state park.

At first, the purchase of the lake was celebrated by the Sweetwater community, as Vail Daily journalist Nate Peterson reported back in August 2021. However, trust in the organizations’ efforts to draft a cohesive long-term plan for the park is waning. A plea for help came from White River National Forest leaders warning that there weren’t necessary resources to manage the park effectively. Additionally, the campground only holds eight sites, the boat ramp needs updating, and the twisty 12-mile-long road to Sweetwater will likely create significant traffic issues.

Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky has been busy acting as the interim liaison between the residents of Sweetwater and the powers that be. “Everyone thought it would be better if the U.S. government owned that land. Then it became the next state park and there will be, potentially, a big campground at the end of our box canyon that will affect that community’s way of life. Now they are going from saving the lake to saving their community,” said Jankovsky, who has been meeting with unhappy Sweetwater residents, many of whom donated to and championed the Save the Lake campaign. “Everyone feels like they got a bait and switch.”

Scott Fitzwilliams, the supervisor of the White River National Forest, is working to resolve this breach of trust. However, given the lack of transparency with the community, It might be a case of too little, too late. “Once you break the public trust, it’s really hard to get that back,” Fitzwilliams said.

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In the short term, the situation with Sweetwater Lake will be messy. The state park designation still has to go through a lengthy (years) vetting process with NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) to finalize the contract, and in the meantime, the residents of Sweetwater Lake are bracing themselves for the crowds while attending bi-weekly meetings that seem to go nowhere.

But perhaps this is the lesser of two evils. That’s the question posed by Jason Blevins, a reporter for the Colorado Sun who has been following this story since the beginning. “Perhaps most importantly, is a single owner who never invests in a property or plans a luxury, gated community better or worse than 330 million owners, all of whom have a right to visit the public property they own?”

Sarah McCracken

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