July 1, 2020

The Conservation Fund Purchases Sweetwater Lake for Future Recreational Access in Colorado

GARFIELD COUNTY, Colo. — The Conservation Fund announced its purchase of the 488-acre Sweetwater Lake property in western Colorado, marking a significant milestone in the permanent protection of the lake and surrounding recreational usage. The Conservation Fund’s purchase ensures the property will not be developed and allows time to obtain necessary federal funding to transfer the land to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) will play a critical role in ensuring permanent protection of the lake as part of the White River National Forest.

Sweetwater Lake is one of the largest natural lakes in Colorado. Its year-round access, beautiful views and excellent fishing has made it a popular recreational destination and key contributor to Garfield County’s local economy. A majority of the 488 acres is surrounded by White River National Forest and is a frequented entry point to the nearby Flat Tops Wilderness. The lake itself also offers various non-motorized boating activities. Under The Conservation Fund’s temporary ownership, the national nonprofit hopes to work with Brink Outfitters to re-open boat rentals and continue access for fishing, kayaking and swimming on a limited basis.

“Sweetwater Lake’s value to the community goes well beyond recreation,” said The Conservation Fund’s Senior Project Manager in Colorado, Justin Spring. “It’s a local hub for economic activity and critical for wildlife habitat. The support of our funding partners and the community, together with the leadership of U.S. Senators Gardner and Bennet and U.S. Representative Tipton to advance legislation to fully and permanently fund the LWCF, have been exceptional and remain essential until we cross the finish line to permanent protection.”

In May of this year, the USFS announced that Sweetwater Lake was number nine on its list of nationwide priority land acquisitions for 2021. The agency is seeking $8.5 million for the project from LWCF—a bipartisan, federal program that has used a percentage of proceeds from offshore oil and gas royalties, not taxpayer dollars, to acquire critical lands and protect our country’s best natural resources for more than 50 years. The Great American Outdoors Act, which is currently moving through U.S. Congress—having passed the U.S. Senate on June 17 and is currently being teed up in the U.S. House of Representatives—will fully and permanently fund LWCF for future conservation projects like this one. Colorado’s Congressional members—U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, U.S. Senator Cory Gardner, and U.S. Representative Scott Tipton—are united in their support for this project.

“The Conservation Fund’s purchase of Sweetwater Lake is great news for Colorado and the millions of visitors that the White River National Forest attracts every year. Permanently protecting Sweetwater Lake will improve recreational access and provide opportunities for fishing and camping,” said U.S. Senator Michael Bennett. “It’s places like these that demonstrate the importance of fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which the Senate voted to secure in June after a decade of work. I’m glad to have played a part in supporting the Sweetwater Lake project, and we’ll continue working until it’s complete.”

“The Land and Water Conservation Fund is the premier conservation program in protecting our public lands for future generations to enjoy,” said U.S. Senator Cory Gardner. “Conserving Sweetwater Lake will help ensure the area is protected and accessible to Coloradans for years to come. Projects like this show why the LWCF is critical to conservation in Colorado and why I am happy to lead the effort for full and permanent LWCF funding, which is included in the Great American Outdoors Act.”

“The outdoor recreation industry has grown exponentially in recent years, accounting for more than three percent of our state’s economy,” said U.S. Representative Scott Tipton. “We anticipate and welcome continued growth in the industry and this expansion of Sweetwater Lake will certainly help meet the demand for greater access to one of our most visited National Forests. I appreciate The Conservation Fund’s continued efforts to protect our treasured public lands and look forward to working with them on other important projects in the future.”

The Conservation Fund’s interim purchase was made possible through support from Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), a $500,000 donation from Eagle County, and roughly $350,000 from private community donations raised by the Eagle Valley Land Trust. The land trust’s ‘Save the Lake’ campaign is still actively seeking contributions for ongoing stewardship of the lake, and to ensure proper long-term management, maintenance, and recreational amenities.

“Sweetwater Lake is a beloved and important natural resource for our communities, and the County is proud to support its protection,” said Kathy Chandler-Henry, County Commissioner Chair at Eagle County. “We’re excited about this next step in the lake’s future protection, which means it can be enjoyed by all for generations to come.”

“The conservation of the Sweetwater Lake property has been a local pipe dream for decades,” said Jessica Foulis, Executive Director of the Eagle Valley Land Trust. “It’s the reason individuals, municipalities, and businesses across the region have joined together to raise funds to support The Conservation Fund’s leadership in protecting it for our community, forever.”

Over the years, many investors had different visions for this land, ranging from housing units to a lakeside hotel to using one of its springs for bottled water. Today’s purchase by The Conservation Fund, and the property’s future addition to the White River National Forest, ensures that Sweetwater Lake will remain protected forever and support better public access to surrounding federal land such as the Flat Tops Wilderness and the Ute Trail, including upgraded trailheads and campsites. Protection will also safeguard important habitat for wildlife—including bald eagles, osprey, elk, deer, rainbow trout, and more—and will sustain a critical component of the Upper Colorado River watershed. The White River National Forest attracts roughly 13.5 million visitors a year. It also supports approximately 24,640 local jobs and $909,351,000 in local labor income, according to USFS’s 2016 economic report.

“Sweetwater Lake is an incredible piece of property and would be a fantastic addition to the public land system. The Forest Service is grateful for the work of The Conservation Fund and many partners working to make this opportunity come to fruition,” said Scott Fitzwilliams, White River National Forest Supervisor.

“Sweetwater Lake and the White River National Forest are critical components to our local economy,” said John Martin, County Commissioner Chair at Garfield County. “From attracting tourists to supporting local jobs—these recreational and historical resources are the backbone of our county, and we are so thrilled that not only the community, but national partners recognize their significance.”

About The Conservation Fund
At The Conservation Fund, we make conservation work for America. By creating solutions that make environmental and economic sense, we are redefining conservation to demonstrate its essential role in our future prosperity. Top-ranked for efficiency and effectiveness, we have worked in all 50 states since 1985 to protect more than eight million acres of land, including more than 260,000 acres in Colorado.

About Eagle Valley Land Trust
The Eagle Valley Land Trust is a local nonprofit dedicated to protecting the open spaces, wildlife habitats, agricultural opportunities, scenic beauty, and access to nature that our Eagle County community depends on. Since 1981, EVLT has protected over 11,200 acres across 36 properties countywide. Visit www.evlt.org to learn more about EVLT’s work and community conservation initiative.

About Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO)
GOCO invests a portion of Colorado Lottery proceeds to help preserve and enhance the state’s parks, trails, wildlife, rivers, and open spaces. GOCO’s independent board awards competitive grants to local governments and land trusts, and makes investments through Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Created when voters approved a Constitutional Amendment in 1992, GOCO has since funded more than 5,300 projects in urban and rural areas in all 64 counties without any tax dollar support. Visit https://goco.org/ for more information.

The Conservation Fund | Val Keefer | 703-908-5802 |  vkeefer@conservationfund.org