Garfield County commissioners step up opposition to Sweetwater state park plan
Garfield County commissioners are doubling down in opposing plans to turn Sweetwater Lake north of Dotsero into a state park.
If they can make a legal argument, the county may even take it to court, Commissioner Tom Jankovsky suggested during a sometimes heated work session meeting with Eagle Valley Land Trust representatives on Tuesday.
“You should feel remorse, because this is bulls—,” Jankovsky said, questioning the EVLT’s conservation goals via its “Save the Lake” campaign, if the U.S. Forest Service, as the new owner of the Sweetwater Lake property, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife proceed with development of a new state park.
“What’s happening is contrary to your goals and mission, and will be more impactful than a private development would be,” Jankovsky said. “I don’t think putting a campground up there is protecting these lands.”
The commissioners have contended that, even though in 2019 they gave verbal support — on a 2-1 vote, with Jankovsky opposed — to the efforts to place the property in the public trust, a state park was never envisioned as the ultimate outcome.
The county has asked to be party to the upcoming federally required environmental analysis of the state park proposal, and have called for a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement under the National Environmental Policy Act.
EVLT Executive Director Jessica Foulis and Deputy Director Bergen Tjossem were invited to the Tuesday work session to explain the nonprofit land conservation organization’s involvement in the land transaction.
EVLT spearheaded the Save the Lake campaign, which was successful in raising just over $1 million, including about half from Eagle County and the rest from private donations, various foundation grants and smaller local government contributions, Tjossem said.
Following the $8.5 million purchase in August 2021 using a major grant from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, and transfer of the property from the Conservation Fund to the U.S. Forest Service, EVLT began working with the Forest Service and CPW on the next steps.
CPW had signed on in support of the Save the Lake campaign, but didn’t become formally involved until those “next steps” turned to how best to manage the 488-acre lake and surrounding land and the various buildings that have been used as a private resort and outfitters’ operation, Bergen said.
Though the EVLT is not directly involved in the park planning, it does control the remaining $133,300 from the Save the Lake campaign to pay for some of the needed upgrades to the buildings and other infrastructure.
“We can’t fund anything that the landowner (Forest Service) doesn’t agree to,” Bergen said.
Still, he and Foulis beared the brunt Tuesday of the county commissioners’ escalating ire over the situation, which has rankled residents of the area who say they don’t want a state park and even some donors to the campaign who said they wouldn’t have given to the effort if they thought a state park was to be the outcome.
“I’ve had numerous emails and personal contact with people who are sick and scared to death of what’s happening up there in their community,” Commissioner Mike Samson said.
Samson said that when he and fellow Commissioner John Martin voted to lend their verbal support to Save the Lake, they never intended it to be a state park.
“I’d like to say maybe (EVLT) is caught in the middle of all this … but I don’t think people who were behind Save the Lake wanted this to become a state park,” Samson said. “We need to totally back up here; we’re way ahead of things, and we need some solid answers about how this transpired.”
Martin said he questions the logic behind the funding scheme, including use of some state lottery funds, and called it a “shell game.”
Jankovsky was more blunt, calling the evolution of the deal from raising money to add Sweetwater Lake to the White River National Forest holdings to turning it into a state park a “bait and switch.”
Bergen took issue with that assessment.
“Do we have remorse? No, this wasn’t a bait and switch,” he said. “We set out to purchase a private property and put it in public hands, and we accomplished that.”
Contributing to the county commissioners’ concerns is the uncertain fate of the private operator, Adrian Brink of AJ Brink Outfitters, who has been told by the Forest Service that some of the buildings she uses for her operation are in disrepair and cannot be inhabited until repairs are made or they can be replaced.
“We aren’t doing anything that we weren’t permitted to do before, except that an inspection of the buildings came back saying they’re in pretty poor condition,” said Brink, who met later in the day with Forest Service officials to work out an interim plan.
“There is a unique experience for people here that we want to preserve,” she said. “There has been something there for over 100 years, in the same fashion as what we’ve done, and we feel that should be preserved.”
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said in a follow-up interview that he thinks they can work out a reasonable plan. But there will be some challenges, because that liability is now on the federal government, and not a private landowner, Fitzwilliams said.
“The lodge is not inhabitable,” he said. “There are gaping holes, there’s mold, there are electrical problems …
“These are government facilities now, for which I take on the liability.”
While the Forest Service could close off access to the buildings altogether, he said a “temporary solution” involving some basic upgrades to make at least some of them usable, appears doable.
“We are trying to get it so they can run their operation,” Fitzwilliams said. “It will be a challenge, but in the long run I think we can work it out.”
Fitzwilliams also defended EVLT’s role in raising the initial money to purchase Sweetwater Lake and stewarding the remaining funds from that effort.
“They’ve just been a vital cog and have been nothing but gracious and above-board in this,” he said. “I feel bad that they’re being accused of these things, when they should be congratulated for all the work they’re doing.”
The funds held by the EVLT are going to pay for things like trash containers, restrooms, a dock and the needed building repairs, Fitzwilliams said. “Without them, we wouldn’t have a third party to leverage and assist with all that,” he said.
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or firstname.lastname@example.org.