Plowing the Plug: New petition on keeping road open shows shift in attitudes
November 24, 2022
POWELL — A new petition signed by the majority of Cooke City/Silver Gate residents and business owners in support of plowing U.S. Highway 212 east of the gateway communities shows a significant shift in sentiment, according to a committee of residents hoping to open up the nearly 9-mile section of highway, allowing access to services in Park County, Wyoming.
This comes despite Yellowstone National Park’s seemingly miraculous opening of the Northeast Entrance Road after portions of the communities’ only winter route to emergency medical services and supplies was washed away in June floods.
The Park Access Recommendation Committee said a survey requested by Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly sent by mail last year resulted in limited participation and failed to represent opinions after the floods.
Roughly 61% of residents and business owners in the communities said at the time they supported finding a way to keep the Beartooth Highway open year round between the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway and the town — affectionately referred to as ‘the plug.’
“Even though the road construction from the North Entrance of Yellowstone is nearly complete, we still need winter access to the east,” the group said in a letter to Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte.
Group consultant Shaleas Harrison, of Powell, said 123 residents from the gateway community have signed the new petition.
The combined population of the communities is 165, according to the most recent census report. She said opinions changed dramatically after the flood.
“Spring floods cut the main artery to our tourism economy this summer. Without this access, tourists fled our communities during a time when we were preparing for our most fruitful season. We have been forced to lay off staff, experienced mass cancellations and most of us have seen our revenue cut in half, or worse. Summer tourism makes up for the majority of our annual revenue and sustains us through the slow winter months,” the group said in the letter to Gianforte.
“We are not asking for handouts,” the letter said. “We are asking for the opening of U.S. Highway 212 for winter travel, allowing for the much needed interstate commerce between Wyoming and Montana in this region.”
Kayla Anderson said her mind was changed after her daughter was injured in a winter accident last year.
Her 5-year-old daughter, Marley, was playing outdoors with her older brother, Hendricks, when she was hit by a large chunk of ice falling from the roof of their Cooke City home.
Anderson called for an ambulance, but was told it was more than two hours away.
She decided to attempt meeting the ambulance in the park, hastening the process. She was able to connect with the emergency services technicians at the Lamar Valley ranger station, then had to switch ambulances in Gardiner for the trip to Livingston.
“Come to find out, Livingston didn’t have the staff needed to take care of her injuries so they threw us into another ambulance and took us to Billings,” the single mother said.
The travel time to Livingston was much longer than it would have been to Cody, had it been an option, Anderson said.
Marley had a lacerated liver, a pin-sized puncture in her heart and three fractured ribs.
She is fine now, but the need to plow the plug is now her mother’s mantra, as well as many others.
“We are deeply concerned for the safety of the people who live in this region because of the insufficient winter emergency medical services currently being offered to tax paying residents of Park County, Montana. These inadequate services could easily be improved by plowing U.S. Highway 212 to Wyoming,” said Monica Tietz and John Vance, trained National Emergency Medical Technicians who serve the Cooke City region, in a letter to Gianforte Oct. 24.
“After the ambulance arrives, our patients take a four to five hour drive from Cooke City to the nearest hospital in Livingston, Montana. In instances requiring critical care, the only way out is by helicopter, which costs people over $60,000 for a flight,” the letter continues.
Even now, as the Northeast Entrance Road is open, daily closures have slowed traffic as the park moves heavy equipment and closes roads for repairs.
The repairs will eventually be finished, but permanent repairs between Cooke City and Gardiner could take years to complete according to park officials.
“The majority of businesses, property owners, and residents want this,” Harrison said. “This is a federal highway, not a trail. Our community pays for these services just like other residents in the county.”
The debate has been ongoing for years — sometimes in a divisive manner, she said.
Not all residents and business owners in the communities want a change, though their numbers seem to be dwindling in recent years according to two surveys and the recent petition.
Business owners and outdoor winter recreationists who rely on the plug as a popular snowmobiling trail have resisted plowing for decades.
The issue is also complicated by the multiple state and national entities involved, including two counties, two national forests, two states, two departments of transportation, Xanterra, the main concessionaire for Yellowstone National Park, and the National Park Service.
It’s one of the snowiest mountain passes in Montana and currently the main groomed trail for winter recreational access to nearby backcountry wilderness areas, remaining unplowed from October to May each year.
The area is a bucket-list destination for snowmobiling and backcountry skiing and draws both visitors locally and from around the country as well as internationally.
Should the plug be plowed in the future, some business owners and recreationists fear the area will lose its unique isolated experience, pushing visitors to other outdoor meccas.
“If the few have their way, year-round plowing of Highway 212 will ruin the draw … to Cooke City in the winter,” said Rowdy Yates, president of the Upper Yellowstone Snowmobile Club, in an August letter.
The Cody Country Snowmobile Association has also been fighting those wishing to plow the plug, saying in a letter to Gov. Mark Gorden earlier this summer that it will “decimate winter snowmobile recreation and tourism in the Beartooth [Mountains].”
Those seeking to keep the status quo joined together, forming an organization called Protect Our Plug. The group, which goes by POP for short, officially came together in September hoping to “further educate” those participating in the debate.
POP members say they “collectively oppose” any proposal to plow the plug other than if needed on a temporary emergency basis. They also want a higher level of transparency on why Xanterra, cities like Cody, Red Lodge and Gardiner, and other groups have an interest in opening the road.
Others say the logistics of actually keeping the road plowed would be cost prohibitive.
Yellowstone National Park spends about $300,000-400,000 a year plowing and maintaining the highway from the Northeast Entrance to Cooke City.
Wyoming plows the highway from its junction with the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway (Wyo. Highway 296) to the Pilot Creek parking area, costing about $35,000 per year in labor, equipment, fuel and other expenses, according to Cody Beers, senior public relation specialist for WYDOT.
Park County, Wyoming, Public Works Department engineer Brian Edwards estimates plowing the Plug can be done for less than $60,000 per year.
“I think somewhere in the $5,000 to $6,500 per mile per year would be a reasonable estimate,” he said in an email with PARC members.
Harrison said those looking at costs for a reason to not plow the plug are being somewhat disingenuous and fail to see the benefits, both in health emergencies and increased business opportunities.
“They get to come here, use the facilities to ride around, and then trailer back to their towns where they are close to a grocery store and a hospital. These community members now want the same thing,” Harrison said.
She also said with small changes in parking areas, winter sports enthusiasts will still have access to the great trails system without flooding the town with trucks and trailers.
There are five parking areas that could be used near groomed trails should the plug be plowed, she said.
“A successful pathway to permanent winter automobile access exists, one that addresses both funding concerns of local governments and the concerns of snowmobilers. We welcome the opportunity to work with your office in preparing a solution that meets the needs of our businesses, residents, and the various users who enjoy this part of Montana,” PARC’s letter to Gianforte reads.
The group has not received a reply to its Oct. 31 letter. The Tribune reached out to Gianforte’s office but was unable to receive comment on the issue as of Tuesday’s press deadline.
This story was published on Nov. 22, 2022.