Garfield County commissioners consider legal assistance in battle over Sweetwater Lake park plans

Sweetwater Lake is located in remote northeast Garfield County and is now part of the White River National Forest properties.| Tom Lotshaw/Office of the Governor

Garfield County commissioners, at their regular meeting Monday, are expected to consider paying $30,000 for outside legal assistance in their fight against plans to turn Sweetwater Lake into a new state park.

Commissioners adamantly opposed plans by the U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife to develop a state park in what had historically been a private hunting retreat in northeast Garfield County since the turn of the 20th century. .

The plans were announced by Gov. Jared Polis last fall following a land deal in which former private property passed through the nonprofit Conservation Fund into the White River National Forest. . The $8.5 million purchase in August 2021 used a significant grant from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, as well as funds from Eagle Valley Land Trust’s Save the Lake campaign.

County commissioners say they were not consulted about CPW’s plans to partner with the Forest Service to create a state park on the 488-acre site, and that the governor’s announcement on the site of the lake in October last year caught them off guard. Commissioners in 2019 voted 2-1 to verbally support the Save the Lake effort, but have since said they never considered a state park under that plan.

“Due to the complexity of the issues surrounding the recent purchase of the Sweetwater Lake property by the (Forest Service) and the associated desire to convert the property into a state park, it has become necessary to obtain specialized legal services to assess the circumstances and recommend options to the Board of County Commissioners,” Deputy County Manager Fred Jarman wrote in a memo to the board for Monday’s meeting.

The petition requests a $30,000 supplement to the county’s general budget from the Denver law firm Fennemore Law, which specializes in real estate matters.

Some residents of the Sweetwater Lake area, accessible via Eagle County via the Colorado River Highway north of Dotsero, have also expressed concerns about potential increased traffic and other impacts from park development. of state.

Since the land is now federally owned, the park proposal must undergo a formal environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act. The county has requested a full environmental impact statement, which could take several years.

White River National Forest and State Parks officials said nothing has been decided and the purpose of the environmental review is to determine the appropriate level of development for the property and whether a park State was even the way to go.

When questioning EVLT officials at a June 7 working session, county commissioners raised concerns about how the land deal was done and whether it may have circumvented due public process.

“Some of the concepts here challenge logic,” Commissioner John Martin said, calling the funding plan a “game of shells.”

The commissioners said they would prefer the Forest Service lease the existing outbuildings to a hunting outfitter who has operated on the site for several decades and to maintain the existing primitive camping and trailhead facilities.

They also decried the idea of ​​removing a property from county tax rolls and adding it to the vast federal land holdings that already make up the majority of land in Garfield County. Martin noted at last week’s meeting that the sale of the land amounted to a loss of $11,000 in ad valorem taxes, not only for the county, but also for the school and fire districts and other entities. funded by property tax.

Senior Reporter/Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or [email protected]

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