Colorado, Forest Service Announce Unique Deal for 43rd State Park – Estes Park Trail-Gazette

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488 acres adjacent to the Flat Tops Wilderness Area, which includes one of the state’s largest natural lakes, will be Colorado’s 43rd State Park.

Governor Jared Polis and other state and federal officials announced Wednesday that Sweetwater Lake in Garfield County, about 30 miles north of Dotsero, is managed under a unique agreement with the US Forest Service.

The formerly private property, which in the 1940s owned a cartoonist and illustrator for the Denver Post, a US ambassador to NATO, and a gangster from Chicago, is now a state park in a national forest area.

In an interview with the Denver Post Tuesday, Polis noted that Sweetwater Lake, located in the White River National Forest, is the second new park his government has approved. The first was Fishers Peak State Park near Trinidad.

“It’s a beautiful place,” said Polis. “It’s also a historic partnership because this is the US Forest Service country. It is the first partnership in the country, no less in Colorado, where (the state) will operate a state park on US Forest Service land. “

White River National Forest overseer Scott Fitzwilliams said there are some examples in Arkansas and Arizona of the state taking over the management of recreational areas on national woodland.

“This will be the first to be a state park run as a state park but jointly managed,” said Fitzwilliams.

The transfer of land from private to public land began when the Conservation Fund, working with private, public, and nonprofit partners to preserve land that Sweetwater Ranch acquired. A loan from Great Outdoors Colorado, funded by state lottery revenues, and local fundraising that included a campaign by the Eagle Valley Land Trust made the acquisition possible.

The Conservation Fund transferred the land to the Forest Service, which received $ 8.5 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund for the purchase. The LWCF money approved by Congress comes from a portion of the proceeds from offshore oil and gas development.

Fitzwilliams said the motion for money to buy Sweetwater Lake was supported by the Colorado congressional delegation and led the motions. But Fitzwilliams said the Forest Service didn’t have the resources, staff, or funding to manage the site as a park and began talking to Colorado Parks and Wildlife about its operation.

An agreement signed in 2019 by Polis and the U.S. Department of Agriculture overseeing the forest service helped pave the way for the partnership, said Dan Gibbs, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.

“It showed how we would work together on a wide range of topics, including forest health, landscaping and natural resources,” said Gibbs. “This is a great example of this partnership.”

The Sweetwater Lake area is at an elevation of 7,740 feet. Limestone cliffs tower over two sides of the 70 hectare lake. The area has important wildlife habitats, including the White River herd of elk, the largest in the state, and the state’s largest herd of migrating deer historically, said Dan Prenzlow, director of Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

The area is also used by waterfowl and raptors and has “robust fishing,” added Prenzlow.

Sweetwater Lake serves as a base for hunters venturing into the Flat Tops wilderness. AJ Brink Outfitters ran a hunting guide business there. Fitzwiliams said state and federal officials will work with the company and with tribal members to preserve cultural and historical resources. The Ute Indians were in the area for centuries, he said.

Prenzlow said hunting and other recreational activities are important to the local economy, and local residents are excited that the land is being preserved for these activities.

“But they also don’t want a town to be brought into their little mountain valley. This is something we are going to grapple with and make sure that, as the governor said, we are really sensitive and only provide top notch recreation, but make sure we take care of those conservation values, ”said Prenzlow.

Conservation was at the heart of putting the site into public hands, said Fitzwilliams. A small part of the area that touched the national forest area was open to the public. However, several suggestions for important developments have been made over the years.

“There were proposals for golf courses, a water bottling company, condominiums,” said Fitzwilliams. “Anytime you have that much private land with water, both irrigated and the lake, the potential for development is high.”

State and federal officials said they will create a long-term management plan. The aim is to build a new boat ramp by June 2022 and make it available to the public and add further amenities later.

Colorado’s parks and public land form the foundation of the state’s $ 12.2 billion outdoor recreation and tourism economy, according to the governor’s office.

“This is a great opportunity for conservation, recreation and our economy,” said Polis. “Our state parks are really a vital part of us and this will be a fitting and extraordinary addition to our state park system.”


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