Sweetwater Lake is no longer in private hands
For nearly four decades, Andrienne Brink has watched over Sweetwater Lake and the land and amenities around it.
“We have cared about it like it was ours, even though it wasn’t,” she said, noting that A.J. Brink Outfitters has operated at the site for 36 years and under six sets of private owners.
Those owners have proposed varied development at the site — ranging from housing units to a lakeside hotel to using one of its springs for bottled water.
But as of this week, Sweetwater Lake is no longer in private ownership. The effort to permanently preserve Sweetwater Lake as public property marked a milestone Tuesday when The Conservation Fund announced its purchase of the 488-acre property.
“We are thrilled this is happening. In all of our 36 years, no one thought about how to preserve anything here. They just wanted to make money,” Brink said. “We just feel like it is headed in a really good direction.”
That direction will make all of Sweetwater Lake, and the area around it, public property.
“As of this week there is no longer a threat of development at the property,” said Justin Spring of The Conservation Fund.
Sweetwater Lake is one of the largest natural lakes in Colorado. While the lake itself is located in Garfield County, it is accessed via Eagle County. A majority of the 488-acre purchase is surrounded by White River National Forest.
In its announcement, The Conservation Fund said the property’s future addition to the White River National Forest ensures that Sweetwater Lake will remain protected forever and support better public access to surrounding federal land such as the Flat Tops Wilderness and the Ute Trail, including upgraded trailheads and campsites.
“Protection will also safeguard important habitat for wildlife — including bald eagles, osprey, elk, deer, rainbow trout, and more — and will sustain a critical component of the Upper Colorado River watershed,” noted The Conservation Fund’s announcement. “The White River National Forest attracts roughly 13.5 million visitors a year. It also supports approximately 24,640 local jobs and $909,351,000 in local labor income, according to USFS’s 2016 economic report.”
The Conservation Fund plans to work with Brink Outfitters to reopen boat rentals and continue access for fishing, kayaking and swimming on a limited basis.
“It’s just nice to have access to the lake again. No one has been using it much lately,” Brink said. The popular Sweetwater Lake Resort, which included cabin rentals and a restaurant, was closed two summers ago by the private investors who owned the property.
Now the boat ramp is reopened and the Brinks are accepting limited cabin reservations. Brink said some renovations are needed, including a new roof and kitchen floors, before she can tackle reopening the restaurant.
The Conservation Fund is a nonprofit established in 1985 that has completed projects in all 50 states to protect more than 8 million acres of land. While the Sweetwater purchase is a significant milestone in the permanent protection of the lake and surrounding recreational uses, it isn’t the final chapter for the effort. The Conservation Fund’s purchase ensures the property will not be developed and allows time to obtain necessary federal funding to transfer the land to the U.S. Forest Service. The Land and Water Conservation Fund will play a critical role in ensuring permanent protection of the lake as part of the White River National Forest.
“You always worry that the public thinks it’s a done deal,” Spring said. “This is step one. Even though it took us a year to get through step one, we really view ourselves as a temporary landowner.”
But The Conservation Fund does have strong indications that its assumption is on target. In its Tuesday announcement, The Conservation Fund noted that in May of this year, the USFS announced that Sweetwater Lake was No. 9 on its list of nationwide priority land acquisitions for 2021. The agency is seeking $8.5 million for the project from the Land and Water Conservation Fund — a bipartisan, federal program that has used a percentage of proceeds from offshore oil and gas royalties, not taxpayer dollars, to acquire critical lands and protect natural resources for more than 50 years.
Additionally, The Conservation Fund reports that the Great American Outdoors Act is currently moving through U.S. Congress — having passed the U.S. Senate on June 17. The bill is currently being teed up in the U.S. House of Representatives and, if passed, it will fully and permanently fund LWCF for future conservation projects.
“Things look really good with Land and Water Conservation funding. … but you never know what Congress is going to do, especially during an election year,” said Spring.
He noted The Conservation Fund’s interim purchase was made possible through support from Great Outdoors Colorado, a $500,000 donation from Eagle County, and roughly $350,000 from private community donations raised by the Eagle Valley Land Trust. The land trust’s “Save the Lake” campaign is still actively seeking contributions for ongoing stewardship of the lake, and to ensure proper long-term management, maintenance and recreational amenities.
“We went into this project assuming some level of local support but never in our wildest dreams did we anticipate the level of local support — both financially and politically — we have seen,” Spring said. “It’s overwhelming how people have demonstrated with action that this lake is near and dear to their hearts.”
For the folks at the land trust, it’s important that the momentum for the Save the Lake fundraising continues.
“We want to set up the eventual owner — the USFS — for success,” said Bergen Tjossem, deputy director of the Eagle Valley Land Trust. “Because of how well this project is doing and how many people support this project, we have been able to expand the vision. We want to make this a better resource for our community.”
And, like Spring, he stressed that the Sweetwater Lake deal isn’t yet finalized.
“This (The Conservation Fund purchase) is another huge step forward for this campaign, but it’s not over yet. We need to continue to do fundraising to make sure this property will continue to be a community resource in the future.”
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