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Sweetwater on the rocks

Locations: News Published

Sweetwater Lake has turned into a thorn in the side of the Garfield County Commissioners, caught off guard when Governor Jared Polis declared that the newly purchased federal land may become Colorado’s 43rd state park. 

In September 2019, during a public meeting the commissioners discussed the plan of the United States Forest Service (USFS) to purchase the land in hopes of protecting it from future development and preserving it as a recreation area. Commissioners Mike Samson and John Martin opted to sign a letter in support, while commissioner Tom Jankovsky voted in opposition.

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“I’m opposed to more land going to the federal government,” Jankovksy stated, “and if you’re going to take 500 acres out then let’s find 500 acres you’re going to give back — you’re going to sell — to private enterprise.” 

The commissioners unanimously took issue upon the Governor’s announcement in October 2021 that the federal land would be managed as a state park. 

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Based on conversations with the commissioners since that announcement, White River National Forest Service supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams estimated that the commissioners’ concerns come with the assumption that a state park would attract more traffic and therefore the community surrounding Sweetwater Lake could be significantly impacted. 

On Aug. 15, the commissioners unanimously agreed to send a letter to Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) acting director Heather Dugan, inquiring about the legitimacy of operating a state park on federal land.

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“Sweetwater Lake is now federally-owned National Forest System land included in the White River National Forest,” the letter, in part, asserts. “Accordingly, the lake and [its] surrounding land are not a ‘fee-title area’ and the state of Colorado, at most, can hold an interest in land by virtue of its purported management of the lake as a state park. How can Sweetwater Lake be deemed a state park in such an instance?” 

On Sept. 1, Dugan issued a response. “At this time, neither the [CPW] Division nor the Commission anticipates acquiring a real property interest in Sweetwater Lake and the surrounding area,” she wrote. “Rather, USFS has proposed that CPW would be issued a permit to manage recreation and public access on the property.” She added, “We commonly refer to all of our ‘parks’ properties (as compared to ‘wildlife’ properties) as state parks.”

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Dugan pointed out that “CPW commonly manages recreation on private and public property via agreements and/or permits that do not grant CPW a real property interest.”

Fitzwilliams and Dugan have both expressed their regrets for not keeping the Garfield County Commissioners better informed.

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“I regret that Garfield County was not included in the initial discussions surrounding

Sweetwater Lake and had to learn about the state’s proposal to create a new state park

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through the Governor’s announcement,” Dugan wrote in her letter. 

Fitzwilliams conveyed to The Sopris Sun the importance of his long standing relationship with the commissioners and acknowledged his personal responsibility going forward in restoring trust between their respective agencies.

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To that end, Fitzwilliams stated he intends to sign a “Cooperating Agency Agreement” between the county and White River National Forest Service. 

Still, Fitzwilliams maintains that “a co-managing system with the state is the best opportunity we have to protect the resources and provide for the public.” 

Over the winter months, Fitzwilliams hopes the parties can come to a consensus on a master plan for Sweetwater, before undergoing an environmental analysis in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act. 

“We’re way behind where we thought we’d be,” said Fitzwilliams, “just because of the controversy … I thought we’d be further along, but I’d rather take more time, get people on board, get the trust built up and have a common vision.”

The funding

The private 488-acre parcel was purchased in part by The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit headquartered in Virginia, with the intent to later sell it back to the USFS once its application for funding through the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund was approved.

For The Conservation Fund to obtain the funds to make its original investment, it acquired a loan from Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), which uses a portion of state lottery funds to invest in the state’s outdoor recreation areas.

In an Aug. 15 letter to GOCO, the commissioners argued that “at the time the loan was issued, GOCO did not have any formal policy authorizing loans,” and that the Colorado Constitution and statutes only specify GOCO’s authority to issue bonds or grants.

GOCO executive director Jackie Miller replied to the commissioners, arguing that “GOCO has authority under Article XXVII [the same article cited by the commissioners] of the Colorado Constitution to make loans for real-property acquisitions that further GOCO’s mission to help preserve, protect, enhance and manage the state’s wildlife, park, river, trail and open-space heritage.”

As reported in the Post Independent on Sept. 12, the commissioners approved spending up to an additional $30,000 toward legal advice going forward. “The county has already spent $30,000 with the Phoenix-based law firm of Fennemore-Craig Attorneys to help it navigate the legalities…” the article further stated.

Tags: #Garfield County #Scott Fitzwilliams #Sweetwater #United States Forest Service #White River National Forest
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