September 7, 2021|By Justin Spring| Land

One Year Later: “Sweet” Conservation Win for a Colorado Treasure

It’s always rewarding to see our projects come full circle. But it requires patience.

Sometimes many years go by between first identifying an important, at-risk landscape, to when we get to see it protected and being enjoyed by the public. In many ways, that gap in time is why The Conservation Fund was created and what makes us the best at what we do. We step in to provide thoughtful conservation solutions that work for the long-term by using our own conservation capital while our partners at federal and state agencies, like the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and others, work to get public and private funding in-hand to pay us back and ultimately protect the land.

Last summer, the country took a step towards improving that process, with the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA). GAOA secured full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF)—a program that has supported so much of our work across the U.S. to secure important water, land and recreational resources. To date, LWCF has funded over 45,000 conservation projects in every state and nearly every county in the U.S.

Sweetwater Lake, Garfield County, ColoradoSweetwater Lake in Garfield County, Colorado. Photo courtesy of Todd Winslow Pierce.

One of those projects—Sweetwater Lake in Colorado—has recently come full circle in a similar fashion. Last summer, just before GAOA passed in the Senate, we purchased the 488-acre Sweetwater Lake property to secure it from any potential development while the U.S. Forest Service applied for funding from LWCF. The property ranked among the top 10 priority LWCF purchases for the Forest Service last year. One of the hallmarks of The Conservation Fund is our ability to act quickly to acquire lands at risk of development. My colleague and friend, Tom Macy, calls this the “pounce factor.” 

Coincidentally, almost exactly one year later as we celebrate the anniversary of the GAOA passing, we also celebrate the Forest Service’s purchase of Sweetwater Lake using LWCF funding to add the land to the adjacent White River National Forest. Now the tract will protect wildlife habitat and enhance recreational access for the general public to enjoy non-motorized boating, fishing, swimming and camping forever.

9 6 21 Sweetwater Lake Infographic FINAL

Sweetwater Lake is a beloved, stunning natural landscape that has been enjoyed by Coloradans and visitors for decades. From kayaking and fishing to educational field trips, this lake has made an impact on many lives, such as middle school science teacher, Autumn Rivera. Autumn and her students have really helped us spread the word about the need to protect this lake.

“I am so excited to see the beautiful Sweetwater Lake preserved for years to come. This summer I spent time up there and it truly is a secret gem in Colorado. I cannot wait to tell the students—they will feel proud and honored to know they helped with this process. Hopefully we will be able to bring the students up to the lake in the next school year so they all can see what their hard work helped to save.”

- Autumn Rivera, Glenwood Springs Middle School teacher

9 6 21 Sweetwater Autumn RiveraAutumn Rivera and her family visiting Sweetwater Lake in the 1990s. Photo courtesy of Autumn Rivera.

Sweetwater is one of the largest, natural lakes in Colorado. But up until recently, the property was under private ownership and faced almost constant threat of being lost to development. Over the years, investors had different visions for this land, ranging from a golf course with luxury housing units to a lakeside hotel to using one of its springs for bottled water. Had we not stepped in to purchase it last summer, it very likely would have been lost forever.

Working to protect this lake is something I will never forget. And the community support was spectacular—not just from individuals but other organizations too. Key partners such as Eagle Valley Land Trust, Great Outdoors Colorado, and Eagle County provided us with the financial capital to make the initial acquisition. Additionally, our Sweetwater Lake Stewardship and Equity Fund will assist the Eagle Valley Land Trust and our agency partners in activating the property for public use and enhancing opportunities for underserved communities to enjoy the lake for years to come. Removing barriers that prevent people from seeing the hidden gems of Colorado is an important step to building broader awareness of the importance of connecting with the outdoor world.

The effort as a whole would not have gone full circle without LWCF, dedication from the Forest Service and Colorado’s U.S. Congressional delegation, and supporters like you who help us get these projects over the finish line.

9 6 21 Sweetwater Lake CO c Todd Winslow Pierce 201911079 1

9 6 21 Sweetwater Lake CO c Todd Winslow Pierce 202005285 1Birdwatching and non-motorized boating are popular activities at Sweetwater Lake. Photos courtesy of Todd Winslow Pierce.

We hope Sweetwater Lake can act as a great example for future conservation efforts across the 50 states and demonstrate what strategic conservation funding can do for a community. Having LWCF more accessible will allow us to continue identifying and completing projects like Sweetwater Lake, getting land back into the hands of the community quickly and efficiently.


Learn more about our ongoing need to bridge funding for LWCF like at Sweetwater Lake and consider supporting more of this work nationwide.


Written By

Justin Spring

Justin Spring is The Conservation Fund’s Colorado State Director. With over two decades of experience in land conservation and natural resource issues, Justin has facilitated the protection of over $95 million of property across Colorado—ranging from small urban parks to working farms and ranches and high-country recreation areas. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling and camping with the family, gardening, hiking, and mountain biking.