White River National Forest supervisor addresses concerns about Sweetwater Lake

A collaborative master planning process will attempt to bridge the gap between local values and federal priorities

Carolyn Paletta
Vail Daily
Sweetwater Lake, pictured here, is located in remote northeastern Garfield County, 10 miles west of the Colorado River Road near Dotsero.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams addressed the Gypsum Town Council last week amid growing concerns over the impact of the Sweetwater Lake public land acquisition and transition from private property into a state park.

The White River National Forest acquired Sweetwater Lake last August after a strong community fundraising effort led by the Eagle Valley Land Trust to purchase the property as a protection against future land development. The lake is located in remote northeastern Garfield County, but is accessed from Eagle County, and Eagle County was instrumental in making the purchase happen. The county donated ​​$500,000 to the Save the Lake campaign, and the town of Gypsum gave $100,000.

While the public acquisition of the land was a success for the campaign, controversy has arisen over the plans for the land, particularly concerning overcrowding, the treatment of existing buildings, and the impact on one woman’s decades-long business on the property.

Preserving character

There are a number of existing buildings on the land, including cabins and a lodge that have been a part of the landscape for generations. Fitzwilliams said that a recent engineering analysis of the structures found them all to be unsafe for human occupation. The plan was to destroy the structures, but this has generated strong opposition from local residents.

“I’m baffled, I’m confused and I feel bad about this miscommunication, misunderstanding, that saving Sweetwater Lake was about saving those buildings,” Fitzwilliams said in a presentation to the Gypsum Town Council. “My first comment to the conservation was, I don’t want them with the buildings. If you get rid of the buildings, we’ll talk, because that’s not what Land and Water Conservation funding is for.”

Members of the Town Council were quick to defend the value of the buildings, and the importance of preserving them for the local community.

“I think you’ve kind of missed the point that saving the Sweetwater Lake was about saving the heritage of that community, and part and parcel of what is in that community is some buildings,” said Council member Bill Baxter. “Some of which are very important to the heritage, to folks that have been here forever, such as myself, that can remember being 5 years old and going up there and spending time.”

Council member Tom Edwards, who is also a board member of the Eagle Valley Land Trust, expressed a vision for preservation.

“It’s really the character of what’s up there that we’re trying to preserve, and that might be done, in my mind at least, with some combination of the old buildings that can be salvaged, and if we have to in some cases, new buildings that provide the things that you’re saying,” Edwards said.

The nearly 40-year local business of Adrienne Brink, AJ Brink Outfitters, is another point of contention. Brink requires the buildings to run her business but does not own them. While protecting one person’s private business does not rank high for the U.S. Forest Service in this project, the council again made it clear that Brink’s business is part of the fabric of the community.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis addresses the audience and members of the press during a press conference Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2021, at Sweetwater Lake.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

“It’s really hard to think about that chicken fried steak not being up there, or that piece of pie that is the best, or that trout that’s like the best trout I’ve ever had in my life that Adrienne throws out,” said Council member Kathleen Brendza. “I think that’s the uniqueness of it. It’s about that personality that is so endearing to us all.”

Fitzwilliams grew visibly exasperated as the conversation went on. He said that the National Forest has now purchased the buildings in order to accommodate Brink, and he has taken on considerable personal risk in allowing people to occupy the buildings, but there is only so much Forest Services officials are willing to do and spend to support a private business.

“I’ve got to justify the expense of taxpayers’ dollars,” Fitzwilliams said. “We purchased this not just for the small Sweetwater community — it’s now owned by every American in the country. So we have to approach this as how is this in the greatest good over the long run.”

Collaborative planning

The dissonance between local values and state and federal priorities was clearly demonstrated in the Town Council meeting, which is why the next step is a collaborative master planning process with communities and stakeholders to make sure everyone’s priorities are taken into account when designing the new national park.

Overcrowding is a substantial concern, having seen how similar destinations like Hanging Lake have fared, but Fitzwilliams emphasized that the ability to strategically plan the park is a powerful tool that will determine the future of Sweetwater Lake.

“No matter what, it’s going to attract people. A lot of them,” Fitzwilliams said. “It’s easy to get to, it’s a really good road and it’s a beautiful place, and it’s now public land … here we have an opportunity to start from scratch. How big a parking lot do you want for day use? If you have a parking lot that holds X amount of cars and it’s full, that’s what your day use is going to be … you control the numbers through that infrastructure, and that’s an opportunity we have in this scenario.”

Fitzwilliams said that a design team will be holding collaborative planning sessions over the next three months, at which point he will return to the Gypsum Town Council and other local government entities to present a master plan.

“I think if we give it three months, working with folks in the community and other people that are people are interested and the state, then if we’re off base, I don’t know what plan B is but we’ll think of something else,” Fitzwilliams said.

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