State parks plan raises overdevelopment concerns at Sweetwater Lake
A dark-sky experience while on a hunting trip with his son at Sweetwater Lake a few years ago took Ryan Parker back to his own youth when his family regularly visited the special spot in the Flat Tops north of Glenwood Springs.
“It’s where I experienced the natural night for the first time when I was younger, and really became a fan,” said Parker, who was representing the Colorado Chapter of the International Dark Sky Association Wednesday at an open house to gather input on plans to turn Sweetwater into the newest state park.
“It’s something I shared with my son when he was young, including one hunting trip when we were out at 4 o’clock in the morning and saw the most magnificent meteor shower I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Sweetwater Lake holds special memories for Parker’s family going back to the 1940s, when his late grandfather came across the backcountry hideaway on a cross-country motorcycle trip.
“It’s been a family staple for us for over 80 years,” said Parker, who now lives in Douglas County near Denver.
That’s why he’s worried about plans by the U.S. Forest Service — which took ownership of the former privately held properties last year after an extensive “Save the Lake” funding campaign — and Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) to make it a state park.
Dark Skies is committed to maintaining such places in their natural state with minimal impacts from excessive lighting.
“If they maintain that sacred component, I think it will still remain special for many generations to come,” Parker said.
Accomplishing that will mean keeping any sort of amenities, such as a campground, as primitive as possible, and restricting activities such as mountain biking and motorized access, he and others who attended the last of three open houses at the Glenwood Springs Library said.
Additional open houses took place at Sweetwater Lake in late January and in Gypsum last week.
Residents of the area and frequent visitors also agree the push to put Sweetwater Lake in the public trust, aided by the Eagle Valley Land Trust and the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, was better than previous private development alternatives that had been floating around over the years.
“I would say the most common theme we’re hearing from people is, ‘Don’t make it Disneyland,’ and, ‘Don’t do anything that will attract too many people,,’ and ‘Maintain the culture, character and the ecological values that are there,'” said White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.
“The fear around the state park idea is that will all change, but I would argue that it’s our only chance to achieve those goals,” he said.
Fitzwilliams received criticism recently from the Garfield County commissioners, who had been supportive of the Forest Service taking on Sweetwater Lake, but were not pleased with the idea of making it a state park.
He, along with CPW officials, have been meeting with the commissioners to try to appease their concerns.
Short of a forest management plan and any funding to implement it, the partnership with the state appeared to be a good idea, Fitzwilliams said.
He admits the state park announcement by Gov. Jared Polis at a ceremony on site at the lake last fall, which county commissioners said came as a surprise, might have been premature in terms of getting the various players on board first.
Sweetwater Lake is located in remote northeastern Garfield County, but is accessed through Eagle County from Dotsero and the Colorado River Road.
“But if we don’t have a partner like the state, we have to look at other options, and none of them are very good,” Fitzwilliams said. “People are going to discover it. Instagram makes sure of that.”
If it’s not managed through state parks or by some other means, the area runs the risk of being overrun similar to Hanging Lake and the Maroon Bells area, he said. Both of those areas now operate under strict management plans, controlling access and the number of visitors.
Adrian Brink owns AJ Brink Outfitters, which has been based at Sweetwater Lake since 1984 and worked with six different private landowners before the Land Trust and Forest Service stepped in.
“None of them ever spent the night there, and they never spent any money to improve it,” she said, noting the many grandiose development ideas, ranging from a golf course and residential development, a massive guest lodge and resort, and even a natural water bottling plant, would have been far worse.
“We still want to preserve it to what it can handle,” Brink said.
“We know that there needs to be more access, and there’s several ways to do it,” she said. “What we don’t want is something too big … maybe more primitive camping rather than full-fledged hookups and too much traffic on the road.”
She’d prefer not to see the pasture areas she uses for her horses turned into camping, but better access to the lake would be nice.
An existing restaurant and some cabins that have been on the site for many years could also be fixed up and made usable, Brink added.
Janet Rivera raised her family just below Sweetwater, including daughter Autumn Rivera, the Glenwood Springs Middle School teacher who is a finalist for National Teacher of the Year and had her students help with the Save the Lake campaign.
“The concern we have is that we were saving the lake from development, and now with a state park there could still be too much development. That’s the overall concern of the community up there,” Janet Rivera said.
“There’s already a decent amount of traffic on the road because of the forest access, but to increase that by any significant amount is going to be a little bit worrisome,” she said. “We’re just afraid of losing what we all tried to save.”
Fitzwilliams advised that the planning process is still in the very early stages, and the hope is to inform any specific plans through extensive public outreach. That plan will also eventually need to go through the formal National Environmental Policy Act review process.
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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