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Sweetwater Lake purchased by national environmental nonprofit

Property could become part of White River National Forest
Sweetwater Lake was in danger of development until The Conservation Fund purchased it Tuesday to eventually incorporate into the White River National Forest.

Despite the six-hour drive from Durango, Sweetwater Lake in Garfield County has been a popular place to go boating, hiking and camping for decades in Colorado. But large swaths of the expansive lake and surrounding land are privately owned – meaning they were at risk of being sold and developed as a hotel, or even as a location to bottle water.

Now, the land will be preserved. The Conservation Fund, an environmental nonprofit, finalized its purchase of the 488-acre Sweetwater Lake property Tuesday. The Conservation Fund will hold onto the land until the U.S. Forest Service obtains the necessary federal funding to purchase it as additional acreage for the neighboring White River National Forest.

Sweetwater Lake is a “spectacular and beloved location on the edge of the Flat Tops Wilderness,” said Mark Pearson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.

The purchase will make fishing, kayaking, nonmotorized boating and swimming more available to visitors.

A kayaker enjoys the views from Sweetwater Lake in Garfield County. Under The Conservation Fund, non-motorized boat rental options will reopen for the lake.

Adrienne Brink, owner of A.J. Brink Outfitters, had not been able to operate her business fully under the investment group that temporarily owned the property. But her cabin rentals, boat rentals and campground will reopen under The Conservation Fund.

“It’s the first step toward ensuring full and permanent access to the lake,” said Justin Spring, project lead at The Conservation Fund. Once the U.S. Forest Service acquires the property, the agency can create a bigger campground and improve the cabins, Spring said.

According to the Forest Service’s 2016 economic report, the White River National Forest supports more than 24,000 local jobs and almost $1 million in local income.

“Without robust funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, some of these opportunities will be lost to development,” Spring said. The timing is perfect to demonstrate why the Land and Water Conservation Fund needs permanent federal funding, he said.

Investment group Coulton Creek Capital sold the Sweetwater Lake property for $7.1 million to The Conservation Fund, after initially listing it at $9.3 million. Eagle County pledged $500,000 to The Conservation Fund’s purchase to protect the lake. Great Outdoors Colorado, an agency that invests money from Colorado Lottery proceeds to protect open spaces, also supported the purchase.

The morning light gleams on a bald eagle’s nest beside Sweetwater Lake. Protection for the lake will also mean protection for important wildlife – including bald eagles, osprey, elk, deer, rainbow trout and more – and will sustain a critical component of the Upper Colorado River watershed.

The Forest Service is asking for $8.5 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund for the Sweetwater Lake project. The bipartisan federal program uses proceeds from offshore oil and gas royalties, not taxpayer money, to acquire land like Sweetwater Lake.

For Pearson, the lake is a classic example of how valuable the Land and Water Conservation Fund is, and how important it is for the U.S. and Colorado Forest Service to “aggressively take advantage of it.”

“We’re hopeful the Colorado Forest Service will look at the Land and Water Conservation Fund as a viable option,” particularly for land in the Southwest that needs protection, Pearson said.

The San Juan Citizens Alliance has identified parcels in the area that qualify, including tracts of federal land near Pagosa Springs that might be exchanged for private ownership – land that includes designated roadless areas and wildlife corridors. The San Juan Citizens Alliance has also been encouraging the city of Durango to sell its 3,000-acre watershed parcel at the headwaters of the Florida River to the Forest Service.

“The city has financial interests in selling the watershed parcel,” Pearson said. If the city or the state sells land to the Forest Service, it could invest that money in services like education.

Pearson said the Forest Service often responds that there’s no money to buy parcels like these, but they “need to step up” and seek funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

A family rows through Sweetwater Lake in Garfield County, one of the largest natural lakes in Colorado.

Popular big-game ranges like Hidden Valley and archaeological sites like the Canyons of the Ancients would not exist without the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The Great American Outdoors Act, which passed in the U.S. Senate in June, will provide permanent federal funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, meaning permanent funding to preserve projects like Sweetwater Lake.

But even if President Donald Trump signs the Great American Outdoors Act into law, adding Sweetwater Lake to the White River National Forest is not a done deal, Spring said.

“We are taking a risk and hoping that Congress funds the project,” Spring said.