February 17, 2020|By Autumn Rivera| Land

Young Conservationists Lend Support to Save Sweetwater Lake

“Telling students they can only make a difference in the future is to mute a very powerful and passionate voice.”

– Autumn Rivera

I was born and raised in Colorado’s Sweetwater Community, about 60 miles west of Vail. As a child, I spent time exploring Sweetwater Lake with family and friends. Like many people in the area, I would hike to the overlook, fish for trout, or ride horses there on a regular basis. You could say Sweetwater Lake shaped who I am today—it was on a hike to the overlook with my family that I realized I wanted to become a science teacher.

Sweetwater IMG 0585Sweetwater IMG 0584
Autumn Rivera and her family at Sweetwater Lake in the 1990s. Photos courtesy of Autumn Rivera. 

Sadly, this special place has always been at risk for development ever since I can remember. At first we feared it was going to be a gated golf course community, than an upscale RV park, and most recently a bottled water plant. It seemed like every few summers we would wonder if this would be the last time we could enjoy our time there before it was closed. 

Sweetwater Lake CO c Todd Winslow Pierce 201911072 Current view of Sweetwater Lake. Photo by Todd Winslow Pierce.

As the summer again came to a close, I returned to Glenwood Springs Middle School where I’ve taught sixth grade science for the past eight years. Each year, my students spend their first semester on a “Colorado River Expedition” learning about the Colorado River and its watershed. We spend time in the classroom and out in the field learning how activity in Glenwood Springs affects the Colorado River and its tributaries. Students explore the river in rafts, look for macroinvertebrates, model watersheds, tour our local fish hatchery, speak with expert speakers and create public service announcements about the importance of caring for our local watershed. This year we even drew and sold macroinvertebrate renderings to raise money to donate to local charities that support the health of our Colorado River Watershed. 

Sweetwater IMG 7094Sixth grade students collected and identified macroinvertebrates found in Mitchell Creek, a tributary of the Colorado River, before drawing them. Photo by Autumn Rivera.


It was during the last few weeks of our Colorado River Expedition when a student contacted me with an idea on where to donate our fundraised money—the Save the Lake campaign—that she had heard about from her mother. Her email sparked an idea and I realized what the final project of this Expedition should be—we needed to advocate to Save the Lake. I provided students with basic background and gave them the option to write to our local Eagle Valley Land Trust.

Sweetwater Save the Lake Banner 2 1 scaled e1574109356642The Conservation Fund is working with the Eagle Valley Land Trust to purchase the Sweetwater Lake property, with the intent to eventually transfer it to the U.S. Forest Service for inclusion in the White River National Forest so it can be protected forever. 

What happened next was completely student driven. Instead of just writing letters and donating the $250 we had already raised, the students felt like they needed to do more. During the week before our Celebration of Learning students organized fundraisers, bringing in baked goods and ornaments to sell. This all happened on their own time and under student leadership. I was so impressed that I just stood out of the way and let it happen. In the end, our students raised another $300 on their own and we were able to donate $550 to the Save the Lake fund.

Sweetwater IMG 8540 OriginalSixth grade students sold baked goods and ornaments at the Celebration of Learning to raise money for Save the Lake. Photo by Autumn Rivera.

“The efforts of Ms. Rivera’s class have had a big impact on the campaign. These students saw an opportunity to make a difference and dove in. They have galvanized countless other donors and stakeholders in Garfield County that are critical to the campaign’s success. We can’t thank them enough for their leadership.” 

– Bergen Tjossem, Deputy Director, Eagle Valley Land Trust

It was such a powerful experience as a teacher. My students were advocating for something they cared about, and went well beyond the scope of any school assignment. My students organized the efforts themselves and made fliers to hang around school encouraging people to donate money. On the night of the Celebration of Learning, while I was busy organizing the presentation side, the students ran the bake sale and ornament sale all on their own. 

The part that touched me the most was the fact that this wasn’t just any lake they wanted to save, but my Sweetwater Lake. It brought tears to my eyes to see them care about a place that was so special to me, without even knowing it was special to me. Their passion has led to a Save the Lake Club where students meet once a week to continue advocating for the Lake. We are looking to speak to our county commissioners and hopefully a few other businesses in town to bring their attention to this amazing cause.

“As a national organization, The Conservation Fund depends on local partners like Eagle Valley Land Trust (EVLT) and people like Autumn Rivera and her class. From the very beginning, we knew we needed strong local support to compete for dollars from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. EVLT was pivotal in laying the groundwork with the local community and raising awareness about the opportunity to protect Sweetwater Lake. Ms. Rivera’s class is adding a new dimension to the project and illustrating the power of connecting kids to nature.  Our hope is that this story translates into financial support (national and local) to help the Fund purchase this iconic Colorado lake and ultimately convey it to the White River National Forest.”

– Justin Spring, Senior Project Manager, The Conservation Fund      


I think many people underestimate the force of our youth. A popular quote you hear in many schools is “the future is in my classroom.” But I disagree—my students don’t need to wait to make a difference, they can do it right now. By telling students they can only make a difference in the future is to mute a very powerful and passionate voice. This was such a powerful example of students taking part in what is currently happening and not waiting until they are older, and it was even more meaningful because of their youth.

My greatest hope is that the enthusiasm and passion my students have for this project is contagious. Showing them footage of Sweetwater Lake and then telling them people want to buy and develop this property brought a very loud gasp from the students. They could not believe this was going to happen and took action to make a change. I hope others have the same reaction and join us in working together to save Sweetwater Lake.

Written By

Autumn Rivera

Autumn Rivera’s love of learning about the natural world and explaining it to others led her to a career in education. After fifteen years teaching middle school science, she still loves the creativity of middle school-aged students, and their readiness to try new things. Autumn holds a BA in Biology from The Colorado College, an MAT in Secondary Science from The Colorado College, and an MA in Educational Leadership from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. In her free time, she enjoys being outside, reading, volunteering, and spending quality time with people she loves.