By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
There’s a short section of highway between Cooke City and Red Lodge, Mont. that dips into Wyoming, crosses two counties, and is the center of a tug-of-war between two groups that have differing ideas as to its winter use.
The “plug,” as it’s known to locals, is an 8-mile section of U.S. Highway 212 which connects Cooke City with Red Lodge via the Beartooth Highway.
In the summer, the highway is busy with tourists taking in the scenery. In the winter, however, it is a snowmobilers’ playground, traditionally remaining unplowed to connect two trail systems used heavily by locals and winter visitors.
This year, though, the snowmobile community is concerned that the “plug” will need to be plowed. Since the June 13 flood destroyed sections of the highway to the west, Highway 212 has been the only connection to the rest of the world for residents of Cooke City and Silver Gate.
Communities Cut Off
On June 13, a massive weather event dumped several inches of rain onto snowpack in the high country at the headwaters of the Yellowstone River. The subsequent flash flood destroyed sections of Highway 89, which connected Cooke City and Silver Gate to Mammoth Hot Springs and Gardiner, Mont.
Since then, construction crews have been working to repair the road, making it passable for locals and visitors. But that work will take time, according to National Park Service officials, who have set a target date of October 15 for completion of the initial repairs.
Should that deadline not be met, Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly has told gateway communities that the Park Service will take responsibility for plowing the 8-mile section of Highway 212 east of Cooke City, ensuring access during the winter months.
But plowing the “plug” means restricting snowmobile traffic in the Beartooth Mountains – an economic blow to communities which rely on winter tourism dollars.
100 Miles of Trails
A University of Wyoming report from 2012 concluded that, at the time, snowmobiling was responsible for $146.8 million in annual direct visitor spending in Wyoming, and an additional $29 million in secondary activity.
Bert Miller, who has been a leader in the Cody snowmobile community for over 20 years, told Cowboy State Daily the University of Wyoming is working on an updated study that should report significantly increased numbers.
“You’re running well over $200 million, probably about $240 million dollars that snowmobiling has brought – brings – into Wyoming,” said Miller. “Probably about 62% of the registrations are sold for people coming here to enjoy the mountain terrain, and the folks doing the math say roughly about $8-8.5 million in revenue was generated up in our corner for that.”
Miller, one of the directors of the Cody Country Snowmobile Association, said the system of trails in the Beartooth Mountains near Cooke City is a huge draw for snowmobilers from around the country.
“We are just so lucky to be able to have a beautiful trail system that gives us a little bit short of 100 miles of either groomed or marked trails between Montana and Wyoming up in this corner,” he said, explaining that the “plug” — that disputed portion of Highway 212 — is an integral part of that trail system.
“Trail A leads all the way down the mountain and goes back and crosses the Clarks Fork river with a beautiful bridge that was built back in the early 80s, and runs all the way to Pilot Creek,” Miller said. “And then once you’re in Pilot Creek, the trail leaves Pilot Creek parking and is on Road 212 which gives us a connection between these two wonderful trail systems. So we don’t want to see the road plowed in the future, because it would disrupt the trail system.”
To Plow or Not To Plow?
For years, there has been a tug-of-war between two factions concerning that section of Highway 212 – those who see plowing the “plug” as an economic benefit, and those who would like to see the road left snow-covered for easier snowmobile access.
Vanessa Shaw, who with her husband owns the Cooke City Sinclair station, said that although personally she enjoys living in a “dead-end town” in the winter, there are others who would rather have year-round vehicle access.
“There’s a large contingency of people that would like to see it be plowed,” said Shaw, citing access to shopping in Cody, and the idea that more people might travel the highway for wildlife watching.
But she has a number of concerns about the ability of Cooke City to support increased winter tourism, should the community be open to vehicle traffic.
“I live on that end of town, and speeding is a huge issue here in the summertime,” Shaw said. “And so I think big trucks and big trailers on a hill on icy roads like that just is a recipe for disaster.”
She said parking would be more difficult should vehicle traffic be allowed to come through in the winter, because snowmobiles normally take up the available parking spots.
“The Pilot Creek parking area is packed on the weekends with people that park there and then snowmobile into town,” said Shaw, “and on a heavy snow year there’s not even enough room for our snow in town – it has to get hauled out – let alone trying to accommodate trucks and trailers.”
She added that backcountry access and highway travel for snowmobiles are also issues that have not yet been worked out.
“So if the plug does end up being open, which is of course a possibility, these big concerns (need to be addressed) instead of just pushing them to the wayside,” Shaw said.
She pointed out that both sides of the debate are passionate about their positions.
“It’s a really big, contentious, emotional, thing in town,” said Shaw. “It’s as political as anything you can think of on the national scale for the people that live here.”
October 15 Deadline
Miller and Shaw agreed that, should the construction timeline on Highway 89 be met, the debate over plowing the “plug” would be moot.
“They have the contract signed with Oftedahl (Construction) and they are confident that they can get the road reconstructed and open by October 15,” said Miller, adding that the members of the snowmobile community would support plowing Highway 212 for “humanitarian” purposes.
“We would work with all the entities and see if we can put in an emergency trail, so we would have access that way for Cooke City,” Miller said, “and be working on the Pilot Creek parking area, because it needs some work because of the flood.”
But he has confidence that the Park Service has the best interests of everyone in mind.
“I truly believe that Cam (Sholly) is doing his very best,” said Miller, “and as long as Mother Nature doesn’t throw a heck of a side curve to slow it all down, it’ll be open October 15.”