County commissioners cite precedent in regulating federal land uses, in relation to Sweetwater Lake park plans |

County commissioners cite precedent in regulating federal land uses, in relation to Sweetwater Lake park plans

John Stroud
The Post Independent
Tom Lotshaw/Office of the Governor
Sweetwater Lake, located in remote northeastern Garfield County in the Flat Tops, is set to become Colorado’s first state park on federal land, after it was acquired by the U.S. Forest Service in August 2021.
Tom Lotshaw/Office of the Governor

GARFIELD COUNTY — Garfield County commissioners say precedent exists for Colorado counties to regulate and even deny certain projects on federal lands, as they lay the groundwork to try to limit state park development within the U.S. Forest Service’s new Sweetwater Lake holdings.

Commissioners on Monday took the next steps to apply the more-stringent state 1041 land-use reviews to any future development of the area surrounding Sweetwater Lake, located in remote northeast Garfield County.

Last week, the commissioners designated the 488 acres of what’s now part of the White River National Forest as an official “area of state interest” for protection of wildlife habitat, as well as historical and archaeological resources. 

The designation was made under a 1974 state law that grants local governments additional regulatory powers for protecting natural and cultural resources.  

Monday’s action was to set specific regulations for developers to fully assess and mitigate any impacts to those resources.

After acquiring the Sweetwater Lake area following a 2021 land conservation campaign, the Forest Service partnered with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to announce plans to develop what would be the 43rd state park.

The once privately held lands were also rezoned by the commissioners on Monday from the Rural designation for private lands to Public Land, to reflect that the area is now publicly held.    

Although federal and state agencies can make the argument that they are exempt from local land-use regulations, Garfield Commissioner John Martin said during Monday’s public hearing that there is legal precedent related to case law for counties to regulate uses on federal lands within county boundaries.

“This review process has been held up in the courts,” Martin said.

One was the Colorado Appeals Court ruling just this year that upheld Garfield County’s regulatory powers over the privately run Rocky Mountain Industrials rock quarry, which operates on land held by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management just outside Glenwood Springs.

Martin also referred to another court-backed decision by neighboring Eagle County in the 1980s denying the Homestake II reservoir project on federal lands that would have supplied water to several Front Range municipalities.

There is case law on numerous other projects where county jurisdiction was upheld, he said.

County officials clarified during the hearing Monday that the regulations would not apply to private properties outside of the roughly 3-mile radius surrounding Sweetwater Lake, or any inholdings that exist. It would also not apply to any current uses by right.

The primary intent of the 1041 move is to influence the planned state park development, which the county commissioners have been critical of since the announcement was made.

Jacob Brey, the Northwest Regional Deputy Manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), joining the Monday meeting via Zoom, said it was “unfortunate” his agency was not made aware of the county’s plans with regards to the 1041 designation for Sweetwater ahead of time.

He said CPW also has an interest in protecting wildlife habitat and other resources, and has been conducting an in-depth inventory of those resources to be included in the upcoming environmental analysis for the state park plans.

Until then, no specific development plans have been approved or even formally proposed, Brey said.

Some design concepts for potential park development have been generated “to spur conversation” in recent community meetings that have been part of the park planning, he said. 

“But no decisions are being made before the required NEPA review,” Brey said.

White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said after last week’s county commissioner’s meeting that he doesn’t believe the 1041 regulations would apply to the Forest Service. However, the agency intends to work with Garfield County as a cooperating agency in the upcoming NEPA review to make sure its concerns are addressed.

Regarding the 1041 designation and follow up regulations, Commissioner Mike Samson offered, “A lot of work went into this in a short amount of time, out of necessity. This is something that needs to be done to protect the interests there.”

Added Martin, “This is being done to protect the area, not to get into a political battle.”

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