By Leo Wolfson, Cowboy State Daily
The Montana portion of the Beartooth Highway, a major corridor linking Red Lodge and Cooke City and running through both Montana and Wyoming, has been closed due to substantial flood damage, the Montana Department of Transportation announced Friday.
The department said Montana’s portion of the 65-mile highway will be closed for an undetermined amount of time to allow for the repair of damage caused by flooding on Monday.
The Beartooth Highway, U.S. Highway 212, is a major corridor and destination for tourists traveling between Wyoming and Montana and Yellowstone National Park.
Lori Ryan, public information officer for MDOT, said the department hopes to have the road reopened at some point this summer.
“DOT will move as quickly as possible so it’s good to reopen,” she said.
Ryan said the road washed out in six areas, in some areas creating ruts as deep as 100 feet, in the Gallatin National Forest northeast of Yellowstone National Park.
This section of road is relatively flat, making it much easier to repair compared to other portions of the highway, where elevations reach nearly 11,000 feet and switchbacks are common. Ryan said the road work will begin next week.
Heavy rainfall on top of a substantial spring snowpack that included three feet of recent high-elevation snow led to substantial flooding in parts of southern Montana and northern Wyoming earlier this week, causing damage and forcing the evacuations of Yellowstone and neighboring communities.
A prolonged Beartooth closure could be bad news for the businesses in Yellowstone’s gateway communities in southern Montana and northern Wyoming that depend on summer tourist travel for their year-long income and are already reeling from the loss of Yellowstone travel.
Top of The World Resort, a vacation rental and convenience store located on the Wyoming side of the pass, is one of these businesses.
Its owner, Jerett Miller, can’t catch a break.
Last summer, Miller lost the cabin he had just paid off outside Red Lodge in the Robertson Draw Fire. Now, Miller, who also runs a UTV rental business in Red Lodge, has to contend with the effects of decreased tourist business.
Miller said 60% to 70% of Top of The World’s customers come from the Montana side of the pass, while another contingent comes from the Yellowstone’s northeast entrance Park outside Cooke City, Montana, which is also closed for the foreseeable future. As soon as the roads closed, Miller said his sales decreased from $3,700 per day to $130.
On top of all this, Miller said his customers have been canceling reservations for both cabins and UTVs.
“Pretty much all my reservations cancelled,” he said. “I’ve been getting cancellations all week long. All week long giving money back.”
Top of The World, which Miller bought last December, is still open for business and he said conditions on the Wyoming side of the pass are relatively normal. Miller said the road is currently open up to Long Lake, about 11 miles south of the Montana border, with camping fully available in the area.
Cody Beers, a spokesperson for the Wyoming Department of Transportation, said he was not aware of any damage on the Wyoming side of the highway and added construction has been ongoing on that side of the pass this week. Beers said he does not know when the pass will reopen.
Beers said a bridge outside Crandall was partially damaged when high water scoured its bottom. He said travel on the bridge will be reduced to one lane while WYDOT workers and staff from Park County Road and Bridge work on the structure.
Miller said the previous owners of Top of The World dealt with a similar situation when they started the business the same summer most of the Beartooth Highway washed out. This gives him optimism for the future.
“They only had about half the amount of business they normally get but they survived, we will too,” he said.
On Wednesday, Gov. Mark Gordon said he would issue an emergency declaration in response to the historic flooding. The declaration will allow the state to seek federal funding assistance for necessary road repairs.
Cooke City and the area around the northeast entrance were hit hard by the recent flooding.
Cooke City resident Jessica Baumgartner said Silver Gate is “in shambles” and the fence surrounding the Cooke City baseball field was completely wiped out. She said a few houses in the area experienced flood damage, including her own, where there was still standing water in her basement on Thursday evening.
The Montana National Guard sent helicopters to assist in search and rescue efforts in Roscoe, outside Red Lodge, and Cooke City, said Andrew Harper, a Red Cross staff member.
Cooke City and Silver Gate, with a combined population of about 100 people, depend on the summer tourist season for the bulk of their income. The towns are difficult to reach in the winter, blanketed with more than 200 inches of snow and only accessible by snowmobile from the east or a tedious route through Yellowstone from the west.
Baumgartner said the idea of summer tourism being cut off by the floods is worrisome. She said she hopes Cooke City and Silver Gate will be able to attract some visitors when the Yellowstone east entrance outside Cody opens back up, as it is unlikely the northern section of the park will open this summer. She also said 10% to 30% of the towns’ visitors come from the Montana side of the Beartooth Highway.
“It’s a huge concern,” she said. “We’ve already had a huge amount of bookings cancel.”
Baumgartner said only about 10% of the customers she had booked for her vacation rental business have indicated they still want to come.
Baumgartner and her husband own about 30 vacation rentals and just started a new restaurant in town this summer.
“We’re definitely in the hole and we’re hoping this summer we would make a comeback,” she said.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden issued a federal disaster declaration for Montana. The declaration makes federal funding available to state and local governments, tribes, and nonprofit groups for emergency work and repairs in the Montana counties o Carbon, Park, and Stillwater counties, the White House said.
Gordon said he has been communicating with Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte and state agency heads about a coordinated response.
“This has been extraordinarily hard on a lot of people and we are doing all we can to assist,” Gordon said in a press release. “Thankfully, visitors have been evacuated and we can go about helping local communities, businesses and others address the historic impacts of this flood.”
An evacuation order issued for Cooke City and Silver Gate on Thursday turned out to be a false alarm, but Baumgartner said she and her family won’t be leaving if another evacuation is called.
“We’re going to stay, this is where we live,” she said.