Garfield County enacts state 1041 protections for Sweetwater Lake area

Feds exempt, but forest chief vows to work through concerns as part of state park environmental review

Sweetwater Lake is located in eastern Garfield County 10 miles west of the Colorado River Road near Dotsero.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

Garfield County is tapping its powers under a 1974 state land-use law to try to ensure wildlife habitat, historical and archeological resources are not negatively impacted with the planned creation of a new state park at Sweetwater Lake.

County commissioners on Monday voted unanimously to designate a 3-mile radius around the lake, located in the remote northeast part of the county, as an “area of state interest” under Colorado’s 1041 provisions for protection of those resources should the park plans proceed.

Specific regulations associated with the designation are to be considered at a formal public hearing scheduled for April 10 before the commissioners.

“The intensity of current and foreseeable development pressures on wildlife, historical and archeological resources in the Sweetwater area are such that additional county oversight is necessary to protect these resources,” county Community Development Director Sheryl Bower said in her recommended findings for the designation. 

“These resources can be unintentionally harmed by an expansion of and intensification of existing uses at the Sweetwater Lake Resort. The additional county oversight of development with the 3-mile area will provide for a more coordinated review and consideration of the impacts, and thereby result in greater protection of the resources.”

Further, “An increase in people participating in outdoor recreation activities will result in greater pressures on these high priority habitat areas.”

The county commissioners have opposed plans to create a state park at what was formerly a privately-owned resort. Sweetwater Lake is accessed off the Colorado River Road in western Eagle County north of Dotsero, but the lake itself is situated in Garfield County.

The 488-acre area, including the 72-acre natural lake, was acquired by the U.S. Forest Service in August 2021 after a concerted fundraising effort led by the Eagle Valley Land Trust, plus a large grant from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund that was used to complete the $8.5 million purchase.

The transaction also involved the nonprofit Conservation Fund as a pass-through before the land came into the fold of the White River National Forest.

In October 2021, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and state parks officials announced plans to partner with the Forest Service to create a new state park at Sweetwater Lake.

Since that time, the Garfield County commissioners have criticized the plans, saying they were left out of the discussions initially and that a large-scale state park development would be inappropriate for the area.

State 1041 (named for 1974 House Bill 1041) powers are a tool for local county and municipal governments to use to give special protections to certain areas where excess development could negatively impact natural and cultural resources.

The Sweetwater area provides habitat for a variety of wildlife, and is a popular hunting area in the fall big game seasons and for smaller game at other times of the year.

It’s also home to numerous historical structures associated with the former resort, as well as a long-standing horseback riding and hunting outfitter who operates on the site. Archeological sites include Ute cave art and other sites that have been deemed eligible for national historic designation, the county notes in its protections.

The county has used the 1041 designation with regards to areas around airports and for the establishment of municipal and industrial water and wastewater projects. But this is the first attempt to apply the special designation to federal lands. 

Federal lands are exempt from local land-use regulations, White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said in response to the commissioner’s action Monday.

But the Forest Service, in conjunction with the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, does intend to work with the county through the upcoming National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process for the park planning to make sure the county’s concerns are addressed, he said.

The federal exemption from local land-use codes has been adjudicated in the courts, Fitzwilliams noted.

“However, it is our full desire to work through any issues with the county, and to cooperate and coordinate as best as we possibly can,” he said 

Fitzwilliams related it to the Forest Service’s plans to build a new ranger district office in Carbondale, and efforts to work with the town to make sure it fits the character of the downtown area where the office is located.

“There, we have worked really closely with the town and shared the plans to ensure we don’t build anything that doesn’t fit,” he said.

With Sweetwater, “I wouldn’t suspect we’d build anything that would be so far out of line from what the county would like to see,” Fitzwilliams said.

Currently, the Forest Service operates a small, primitive campground on the site, which would likely be relocated now that the Forest Service holds the surrounding land. 

Just how big the park development and new campground might be, and what other amenities might be proposed, remains to be determined through the planning and NEPA review process, Fitzwilliams said.

Garfield County has retained outside legal counsel to assist in its efforts to fight the state park plans, which could result in future legal action. Whether the county’s 1041 protections would apply to a state park, even though it would be on federal land, could also be challenged.

Bower said the state would have to apply for a 1041 permit through the county to develop the park. If not, the county could pursue legal action, she said.

Post Independent interim Managing Editor and senior reporter John Stroud can be reached at or at 970-384-9160.

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