WESTERN EAGLE COUNTY — A local conservation group rallying support to save Sweetwater Lake Resort found some this week with the Eagle Town Board and Gypsum Town Council.
Eagle Valley Land Trust asked cities to support its efforts to preserve Sweetwater. Representatives of both communities were happy to provide it by promising letters of support.
When Bergen Tjossem of the Eagle Valley Land Trust asked the public, numbering around 50 and gathered for the Gypsum Town Council meeting on Tuesday evening, how many people had visited the Sweetwater Lake area, virtually everyone in the room raised his hand.
“Sweetwater is a pretty amazing place,” Tjossem said. “A lot of people probably went there as kids and a lot of people probably had kids who went to Sweetwater Lake, but not in the last two years because it’s been closed to the public.”
Development pressure exists
If you think no one would develop land in remote Sweetwater, think again. One proposal envisioned a golf course, 280 homes and a hotel. This did not materialize, but the current owners have removed public access, EVLT representatives noted.
The entire parcel is 488 acres in eastern Garfield County and is accessible year-round. The road, which originates in Eagle County, is cleared of snow, EVLT executive director Jim Daus told the Eagle Town board. He noted that Sweetwater is one of Colorado’s largest natural lakes.
The Sweetwater preservation effort is a $9 million deal and some of that money is ongoing, Daus said. EVLT and a national non-profit organization called The Conservation Fund are leading an effort to raise $3.5 million to purchase the property with the ultimate goal of integrating the parcel into the surrounding White River National Forest. .
The Conservation Fund won a contract to secure the property, in competition with several private developers.
“We basically have a year to find the funding to protect this property,” Tjossem said in Gypsum. “It’s a pretty big lot and it’s a gateway to the public lands around there.”
Kathy Heicher of the Eagle County Historical Society explained that Eagle is connected to Sweetwater, then regaled the Eagle City Council with a quick story about the Ute Trail, the Mountain Men, the Chicago mobster Louis “Diamond Jack” Alteri who fled to Sweetwater and Henry Hernage, namesake of Hernage Gulch, who signed his name on the roof of one of the caves in 1884.
A cave houses Ute Indian pictographs, one of the few places in the state to have them, Heicher said.
Janet Rivera lives near Sweetwater. People drive there, meet the locked gate at the end of the road and turn around – disappointed, she said.
“We ask you to help us preserve it for us to use. It’s not just to watch,” Rivera said.
Liz Mooney, president of Sweetwater Community, told Eagle City Council that people who leave Sweetwater for work each day go to Eagle County. They’re not going to Glenwood Springs, Mooney said.
Tjossem agreed that Sweetwater is an important regional facility. He said people traveling to the area stop at Eagle and Gypsum for fuel, supplies and lodging. To that end, EVLT reached out to various governments and organizations for letters of support for the purchase, including Garfield County, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, AJ Brink Outfitters, and Walking Mountains Science Center.
EVLT says the Sweetwater Lake Preservation Plan:
- Create new public recreational access to the lake area for fishing, horseback riding, boating and camping.
- Free access to surrounding public lands including the Flat Tops Wilderness Area, White River National Forest, and the Ute Trail.
- Conserve critical habitat for elk, deer, osprey, eagles and other wildlife
- Protecting the Upper Colorado Watershed
- Open new public access to historic Ute Cave while protecting cultural resources.
“We have to show that the community is fully behind the purchase,” Tjossem said. “It is important for the whole region.
Proponents of the preservation plan are due to meet on Monday, October 28 at 5:30 p.m. at the lake to brainstorm and plan next steps.
Vail Daily reporter Pam Boyd contributed to this story.