Forest Service plan for Sweetwater Lake offers camping, horses

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The White River National Forest has developed a plan to develop and manage a new recreation area on public Sweetwater Lake.

“This is an opportunity to do something different than we’ve seen in the state,” said Mark Lehman, the property’s Colorado Parks and Wildlife manager, during an April 4 presentation of the proposal in Plaster.

It was about two and a half years ago that Governor Jared Polis stood atop a bluff overlooking Sweetwater Lake in Garfield County and announced a unique partnership between Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Forest Service that “saved the lake” and made it the nation’s 43rd state park. stands. The 488-acre estate had been owned in recent decades by developers who envisioned a private resort, luxury homes and even a water bottling plant. The Forest Service took over the property adjacent to the Flat Tops Wilderness in the summer of 2021 with the help of an $8.5 million grant from the Land and Water Conservation Fund and additional support from The Conservation Fund and the Eagle Valley Land Trust .

Colorado Parks and Wildlife will manage a total of 832 acres around the lake for the Forest Service under a 20-year permit. The Forest Service reviews the development and management plan under National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) guidelines.

The plan calls for the possible restoration of historic structures around the lake, but notes that existing buildings “that are in a state of serious deferred maintenance” and do not meet various regulations will be demolished. The plan calls for the construction of a new lodge with administrative and visitor services and a limited food facility “such as a small coffee or cake shop.”

The White River National Forest’s draft management plan for Sweetwater Lake includes cabins, campsites and horse pastures. (Courtesy of the US Forest Service)

White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said at the April 4 meeting that the design of any new construction would have “an authentic feel that reflects much of what you see around the Flat Tops.”

“No kitschy Western facade,” he said. “We think we can improve quite a bit architecturally… where visitors can get that feeling that is authentic and different. It won’t be an average place.”

The Forest Service’s proposal calls for 15 to 20 new campsites, converting an existing federal campground into a day-use campground, building eight to 12 new “rustic” cabins, new horse stables, four to seven horse campsites and a improved access to the lake. The plan does not allow for new uses, such as mountain biking or motorized travel. The Forest Service has proposed limiting visits to the lake to 250 daily visitors.

Strategies for managing visitor traffic remain unknown. That could include signage at the bottom of Sweetwater Road. This may involve reservations. Colorado Parks and Wildlife requires day-use reservations at only one of the parks: Eldorado Canyon.

“We’re going to have to limit people. You just can’t ignore that,” Fitzwilliams told those gathered for the meeting.

But should it be a state park?

The proposal includes nine themes that emerged after more than a dozen public meetings. These themes include limiting RV and RV traffic on Sweetwater Road, protecting resources, honoring historic uses around the lake, maintaining a western feel, providing restaurants, preserving existing structures, viability of a commercial operation at the site, the overall carrying capacity for the new site and whether or not it should be called a state park.

Jacob Bray, deputy regional manager for CPW’s Northwest Region, said the agency will consider not using state park designation at Sweetwater Lake, which community members feared would draw large crowds.

“We can explore calling this a state park,” Bray told the meeting. “To honor what Sweetwater is and not turn it into something you don’t want to see.”

At more than a dozen meetings since 2022, community members met with representatives from CPW and White River. Community members of the Sweetwater Lake Working Group urged state and federal land managers to focus on historic uses and access for equestrians at the lake, where outfitter Adrienne Brink has been providing hunters and horseback riding for more than 40 years. hinterland guides.

The working group wanted any new plan to also provide opportunities for Brink and its dining facility, which has served as a community meeting place for decades. The Forest Service has closed Brink’s restaurant and some cabins due to safety concerns.

Entrance to Sweetwater Lake’s existing lodge on May 13, 2022 in Garfield County. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The task force has expressed frustration with the process, as residents fought for protections while state and federal land managers worked to improve access to the remote property. It’s a common challenge for many parts of Colorado, where the friction between managing growth, access and conservation is a defining theme.

The Forest Service has not begun acquiring the land around Sweetwater Lake with a plan for a new state park. The agreement with CPW was “an evolution,” Fitzwilliams said April 4.

“The Forest Service is penniless and our budget is getting much, much worse,” he said. “We are not going to do this alone. The excitement about a state park was short-lived, but the excitement about the future is real. There is a real opportunity here.”

Community members declined to comment this week as they reviewed the proposed action unveiled by the Forest Service. Garfield County commissioners, who have also expressed frustration with the state management plan, also declined to comment until they issued a formal response as part of the NEPA review process.

The proposed action is open for public comment until early August. The Forest Service will hold public meetings in Glenwood Springs and Gypsum in early June. Click through to the project’s website for more information.