Plowing the Plug: New petition to keep the road open shows a change in settings

A new petition signed by a majority of Cooke City/Silver Gate residents and business owners in support of plowing US Highway 212 east of the Gateway communities shows the nearly 9-mile section hopeful, according to a committee of residents of the freeway providing access to services in Park County, Wyoming.

This comes despite the seemingly miraculous opening of Yellowstone National Park’s Northeast Entrance Road after parts of the communities’ only winter route to emergency medical services and supplies were washed away in June’s floods.

The Park Access Recommendation Committee said a survey requested by Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly and sent out in the mail last year resulted in limited participation and was unable to offer an opinion after the floods. Approximately 61% of residents and business owners in the community at the time said they supported finding a way to keep the Beartooth Highway between the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway and the city open year-round—affectionately referred to as “the plug.”

“Although road construction from Yellowstone’s north entrance is almost complete, we still need winter access to the east,” the group said in a letter to Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte.

Powell group counselor Shaleas Harrison said 123 residents of the Gateway community signed the new petition. The total population of the parishes is 165, according to the latest census report. She said opinions changed dramatically after the flood.

“Spring floods severed the main artery to our tourism economy this summer. Without that access, tourists fled our communities as we prepared for our most fruitful season. We’ve had to lay off staff, experienced mass cancellations, and most of us have seen our revenue cut in half or worse. Summer tourism accounts for the bulk of our annual revenue and sustains us through the slow winter months,” the group said in the letter to Gianforte, adding, “We do not ask for handouts. We are calling for the opening of US Highway 212 for winter travel to enable much-needed interstate commerce between Wyoming and Montana in this region.”

Kayla Anderson said her mind changed after her daughter was injured in a winter accident last year. Their 5-year-old daughter Marley was playing outdoors with her older brother Hendricks when she was struck by a large chunk of ice falling from the roof of their Cooke City home.

Anderson called an ambulance but was told he was more than two hours away. She decided to meet the ambulance at the park to expedite the process.

She was able to connect with the EMS technicians at the Lamar Valley ranger station and then had to switch ambulances in Gardiner for the trip to Livingston.

“Come find out Livingston didn’t have the staff to attend to her injuries so they threw us in another ambulance and took us to Billings,” the single mom said.

The travel time to Livingston was much longer than to Cody if it had been an option, Anderson said. Marley had a torn liver, a pinhole in her heart, and three broken ribs. She is fine now, but the need to unplug is now her mother’s mantra, as is many others.

“We are deeply concerned for the safety of the people living in this region due to the inadequate emergency medical services currently provided to taxpaying residents of Park County, Montana during the winter. These underservices could easily be improved by plowing US Highway 212 into Wyoming,” said Monica Tietz and John Vance, trained national emergency medical technicians serving the Cooke City area, in an Oct. 24 letter to Gianforte.

“Once the ambulance arrives, our patients drive four to five hours from Cooke City to the nearest hospital in Livingston, Montana. In cases where critical care is required, the only resort is by helicopter, which costs people over $60,000 for a flight,” the letter continued.

Even now that Northeast Entrance Road is open, daily closures have slowed traffic as the park moves heavy equipment and closes roads for repairs. Repairs will eventually be completed, but permanent repairs between Cooke City and Gardiner could take years, according to park officials.

“The majority of businesses, property owners and local residents want this,” Harrison said. “This is a federal road, not a hiking trail. Our community pays for these services as do other county residents.”

The debate has been going on for years — sometimes in divisive ways, she said.

Not all residents and business owners in the communities want a change, although according to two surveys and the most recent petition, their numbers appear to be dwindling in recent years. Business owners and outdoor winter vacationers who rely on the plug as a popular snowmobile trail have resisted plowing for decades. The problem is also complicated by the many state and national entities involved, including two counties, two national forests, two states, two departments of transportation, Xanterra, the principal concessionaire for Yellowstone National Park, and the National Park Service.

It is one of the snowiest mountain passes in Montana and is currently the primary groomed trail for winter access to nearby wilderness areas, remaining unploughed from October through May. The area is a popular destination for snowmobile and backcountry skiing, attracting both domestic, international and international visitors. Should the plug be plowed in the future, some business owners and recreation seekers fear the area will lose its uniquely isolated experience, driving visitors to other outdoor meccas.

“If the few have their way, the year-round plowing of Highway 212 will ruin the attraction … to Cooke City in the winter,” Rowdy Yates, president of the Upper Yellowstone Snowmobile Club, said in an August letter.

The Cody Country Snowmobile Association has also campaigned against those wanting to plow the plug, saying it will “decimate winter snowmobile recreation and tourism in Beartooth [Mountains]’, in a letter to Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon earlier this summer.

Those who want to preserve the status quo banded together and formed an organization called Protect Our Plug. The group, known as POP for short, met formally in September in hopes of “educating” those involved in the debate.

POP members say they “collectively oppose” any suggestion to plow the plug unless it’s temporarily necessary. They also want a greater level of transparency as to 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 prohibitive. Yellowstone National Park spends about $300,000 to $400,000 a year plowing and maintaining the highway from the Northeast Entrance to Cooke City. Wyoming is plowing the highway from its intersection with the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway (Wyo. Highway 296) to the Pilot Creek parking lot, which, according to Senior Public Relations Specialist Cody Beers, costs about $35,000 a year in labor, equipment, fuel and other expenses costs for WYDOT.

Brian Edwards, an engineer with the Park County, Wyoming Department of Public Works, estimates that plowing the plug can be done for less than $60,000 a year.

“I think somewhere between $5,000 and $6,500 per mile per year would be a reasonable estimate,” he said in an email with PARC members.

Harrison said those who are looking at costs for a reason not to pull the plug are somewhat disingenuous and fail to see the benefits, both in health emergencies and increased business opportunities.

“They come here, use the facilities to drive around and then take the trailer back to their towns where they are close to a grocery store and a hospital. These community members want the same thing now,” Harrison said.

She also said that with minor changes to parking, winter sports enthusiasts will still be able to access the great trail network without flooding the city with trucks and trailers. There are five parking spots that could be used near groomed trails should the plug be plowed, she said.

“There is a successful route to permanent winter access for cars that addresses both local government funding concerns and snowmobiler concerns. We welcome the opportunity to work with your office to prepare a solution that meets the needs of our businesses, residents and the diverse users who enjoy this part of Montana,” reads PARC’s letter to Gianforte.

The group has not received a reply to its October 31 letter. The Tribune reached out to Gianforte’s office but was unable to get any comment on the matter as of Tuesday’s editorial deadline.