Less than a month after being reconnected to Yellowstone National Park following flood damage to roads in June, residents of Cooke City are divided over access along another section of the highway .
A coalition of Cooke City residents, homeowners and business owners delivered a petition to Governor Greg Gianforte asking him to support snow removal from an eight-mile stretch of Highway 212 in the winter.
Known as the “plug,” the section of the roadway is covered in snow in the winter to allow snowmobilers and skiers to hit the trails of the surrounding Beartooth Mountains. Cooke City markets the experience as “sled to bed” in its promotion of winter tourism.
“Our primary concern is public safety,” Terri Briggs, president of the Cooke City Chamber of Commerce, said in a press release. “We have an aging community that needs access to pharmacies and hospitals within six hours. I live in Colter Pass and firefighters cannot access my property.
Ben Zavora, a Cooke City resident and backcountry ski outfitter, opposes snow removal. Many of its customers enjoy the mountain town’s off-the-grid atmosphere, and some locals like that the town is dead-end in the winter.
“It’s pretty crazy how much this divides the community,” he said, adding that there was a lot of misinformation floating around.
A spokesperson for Gianforte acknowledged that the governor had received the petition but “continues to believe that there must be a broad consensus among the communities.”
Cooke City, a former mining town in the southeast corner of Park County, consists of seven hotels, two gas stations and about seven restaurants, depending on the season, according to Protect Our Plug advocates. Combined with the neighboring community of Silver Gate, both towns have fewer than 200 year-round residents.
Although the section of the causeway is split roughly evenly between Montana and Wyoming, it is known as the “Orphan Highway”. That’s because the entire Beartooth Highway (212) was built under the National Park Approach Roads Act, signed into law in 1932 by President Hoover.
Montana eventually took over maintenance of Highway 212 from Red Lodge to the Wyoming state line, but Wyoming never adopted the route. That’s why every spring the Park Service plows the Wyoming side of Beartooth Pass.
Yet the Wyoming Department of Transportation plows Highway 296, the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, to its junction with the orphan section of Highway 212, and even plows Highway 212 an additional 5 miles towards Cooke City to the Pilot Creek trailhead to provide parking for snowmobile trailers.
Shaleas Harrison, who researched the history of the road for Cooke City snow removal proponents, said 1984 was the last time the cap was plowed in the winter. Montana’s Park County commissioners asked the Park Service to provide a special-use permit for plowing, but it was revoked after $200,000 could not be raised to fund the work.
At the time, the Department of the Interior estimated the cost of plowing at $200,000 per year, plus a capital investment of $300,000. In 2022 dollars, these amounts would be closer to $570,000 to $850,000, respectively.
Businesses and residents opposed to plowing say it will take away from Cooke City’s unique character. The only way to reach the city in winter is to drive through Yellowstone National Park on its recently repaired road that was damaged by June floods.
Zavora said proof of Cooke City’s popularity in winter is that there are now four ski guide operations in the area compared to when it started as the sole provider of the service a decade ago.
“Cooke City continues to grow as a ski and snowmobile destination,” he said, adding that proponents of not plowing the jack feel like they haven’t had a seat at the table as their fellow citizens pushed to open the road.
The Wyoming State Snowmobile Association has also been vocal in its opposition to snow removal. The group wrote to Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon in July, noting that snowmobiling in the region generates about $7.8 million in travel and equipment expenses, according to a University of Wyoming study. The snowmobile club called the plug the “heart and heart” of the Beartooth Mountains snowmobile trail system. »
A 2013 study by the University of Montana estimated that winter visitors spent about $2.34 million during the winter in Cooke City, creating about 38 jobs. A survey accompanying the calculation found that most visitors wanted the road to be snow free.
“Snowmobilers are terrified of their backcountry being taken away from them,” said Chad Meador, manager of the Alpine Motel in Cooke City. ” Why not try ? »
He said clearing the road would allow residents to travel to Cody, Wyoming, for groceries rather than paying “Bozangeles” prices. Bozangeles is a derisive name given to Bozeman by combining the city name with Los Angeles. Bozeman is the closest major city accessible by traveling through the park in the winter. Meador also noted that the only doctors who accept his dental and eye insurance are located in Billings, a seven-hour winter drive through the park, compared to three hours when the snow cap is plowed.
This is not the first time that the snow removal of the traffic jam has been the subject of heated debate and divided the city. In 2011, a similar battle was fought, ending when no official wanted to take responsibility for the cost of ploughing. At the time, it was estimated that it would take two to three years to research the development of an alternative trail on Forest Service land if the road were plowed. After any environmental review, there was no guarantee that a route would be built.
The problem resurfaced this year because the road to Yellowstone from Cooke City and Silver Gate was closed all summer following flooding in mid-June. When it was uncertain whether the road would be repaired in time to ensure residents had access to the outside world through the park, the idea of clearing the plug was discarded as a possible option.
However, construction crews and engineers – through heroic effort and many overtime hours – completed the work near Cooke City on October 15. The entrance road at the other end of Gardiner, also damaged by flooding, reopened to the public on October 30. The road through Yellowstone is the only road open to vehicles in the winter as it is used by residents of Cooke City and Silver Gate.
This summer, without access to the park, businesses in Cooke City and Silver Gate suffered huge losses. Also in recent years, several businesses have been bought out by new owners. Zavora said many companies supporting the plowing have struggled and see the opening of the road as a “magic bullet” for their operations.
“We call for the opening of US Highway 212 for winter travel, allowing much-needed interstate commerce between Wyoming and Montana,” said Brandon Richardson, co-owner of High Country Motel & Cabins and Sweet Pea Grocery & Gifts. , in a statement. “Everyone is struggling with the high cost of fuel and food. This is an additional difficulty that would be easier if the pass were open.