It’s winter, and in Cooke City and Silver Gate, Montana, there’s only one route to civilization, medical facilities and supplies – west through the northeast section of Yellowstone National Park, up to Gardiner and Livingston, Montana.
For decades, a tug-of-war has been ongoing between snowmobile enthusiasts and residents. Snowmobilers want machine-only access to the tiny resort towns. But residents like Autumn Pitman say there are safety matters that trump recreational use.
“We’ve had little girls get hurt from ice falling off the roof, we’ve had massive heart attacks,” said Pitman. “We’ve had snowmobilers that have been in wrecks up here because they’re going too fast on the groomed trail.”
The nearest hospital in the winter, however, is a minimum of five hours away in Livingston.
Monica Tietz, a local EMT who also serves on three community boards as well as secretary of the snowmobile club, wrote a letter in support of a petition by a local organization known as PARC (Park Access Recommendation Committee) to Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte to plow the road to the east, as transportation to the nearest medical facilities to the west takes nearly six hours – on a good day.
“If an ambulance is needed, we wait for (Yellowstone Park) to dispatch an ambulance from Mammoth, easily an hour and a half away on a good day,” Tietz wrote. “After the ambulance arrives, our patients take a four- to five-hour drive from Cooke City to the nearest hospital in Livingston, Montana.”
But should the 8.5-mile section of the highway to the east of Cooke City be open year-round, that would make a dramatic difference, Tietz said.
“Patients could be at the Cody hospital in less than three hours instead of waiting six to seven,” she wrote. “It cuts the ride time by more than half. This amount of time is consequential for people’s lives.”
Kayla Anderson is one former resident who signed the petition to plow the highway to the east of Cooke City. Her daughter Marley was seriously hurt this past spring when a chunk of ice slid off a roof onto her 4-year-old body.
“It hit her on her back,” Anderson told Cowboy State Daily. “She had a concussion, and she ended up diagnosed with three fractured ribs, a pin-sized puncture to her heart and a laceration to her liver.”
Anderson called 911, but was told that life-flight service wasn’t available and would have to wait two and a half hours for an ambulance to arrive from the west.
“So, I decided that I would meet them in (Yellowstone) Park,” she said. “I got a couple miles away from the Lamar ranger station by the time I met the first ambulance.”
Then it took another three and a half hours to get Marley to the hospital in Livingston – only to find out that she needed care that the small hospital couldn’t provide. So the little girl was sent by ambulance to Billings, Montana, another 120 miles away, where she stayed for the next week.
Although Kayla and her two children had lived in Cooke City full-time for two years, she said she hadn’t really considered what might happen if a medical emergency occurred.
“I knew it could happen, but I wasn’t prepared for it,” said Anderson. “All our normal doctoring, we meet online or on the phone with our doctors and have our prescriptions mailed to us.”
Little Marley, who is now 5, recovered quickly after her hospital stay. But Anderson shudders to think what might have happened had her injuries been more severe.
“In the summertime, it’s an hour and a half, an hour and 45-minute drive to Cody,” she said. “Maybe in the wintertime you have to go a little slower and it would take 45 minutes to two hours. But it wouldn’t have been four hours to Livingston.”
Terri Briggs, who is president of the Cooke City-Silvergate Chamber of Commerce, added that there’s more at stake with a year-round opening of the east road than just medical emergencies.
“Energy-wise, propane, if it runs out come mid-March, we’re done until this road opens,” said Briggs. “We can’t heat with propane. We can’t do anything.”
Briggs, Anderson and Pitman are three of the 123 residents, property owners and other stakeholders (there are only 160 residents in and around Cooke City and Silvergate) who have signed the petition for Governor Gianforte, asking the state to plow the 8.5-mile section of federal highway known locally as “the plug.”
The National Park Service keeps the highway plowed between Silvergate and Gardiner, Montana. The Wyoming and Montana Departments of Transportation keep Highway 212 plowed between Cody and the end of the Chief Joseph Highway, but the remaining 8.5 miles (“the plug”) has been left alone.
“The majority of the Cooke City residents definitely want this road open,” said Briggs.
Historically, however, the road to the east has remained closed, which has been a boon for snowmobilers who say they want to protect the unique winter heritage of the Cooke City area.
Two opposing factions – the PARC and Protect Our Plug (POP) group – have been engaging in a public tug-of-war over which has the most support for its position.
While PARC advocates for plowing the road, the POP group supports keeping the plug closed so snowmobilers have unfettered access to the vast snowy playground around Cooke City.
In an interview with Cowboy State Daily earlier this month, Elk Horn Lodge owner Lisa Ohlinger predicted that should the road be plowed, it would “decimate” her winter business.
“We wouldn’t have any snowmobiling, because that’s our only trail to get out of town to our back country riding,” she said. “So, we would have not only lost our summer, but we would have lost our winter.”
And Ohlinger said now that COVID restrictions have been lifted, winter business has returned – and then some.
“Our Canadian customers can come back,” she said. “For the past two years because of COVID, they haven’t been able to come, and we’re a big destination for Canadian skiers and snowmobilers. So that’s been huge.”
Ohlinger added that the area has also become more popular with backcountry skiers.
“That has really exploded,” she said. “Last winter was a great winter for that.”
“We even had Kobe Stevenson, the U.S. Olympic freestyle skiing silver medalist, stay with us last year,” she added.
Shaleas Harrison, a political consultant working with PARC on the petition that was sent to Gianforte, said she understands the position of the POP advocates, but that they shouldn’t have as much say in the matter as those who live in the community.
“They care about Cooke City, but their livelihoods and safety don’t depend upon the road being open,” said Harrison.
Seeing Both Sides
Briggs said she knows that some of her neighbors and customers believe that plowing the road would ruin the snowmobiling there. However, there has been at least one change in the last couple of years that makes it easier for snowmobilers.
“For so many years, it took too much fuel to get from Cooke City over to the Beartooth and back,” said Briggs. “Now, the Top Of the World store is open (on the Beartooth Highway) and they can get fuel up there. But it would be nothing to put your snowmobiles on a trailer and take off and go and have a great day, either here at Cooke City or on the Beartooths.”
Briggs said that she loves her snowmobiling customers and doesn’t want to damage that relationship.
“We love our snowmobilers up here,” said Briggs. “They are a special group that we just have so much fun with. I’ve adopted several of mine.”
Pitman agreed, but pointed out that the few regulars who stay at the Big Bear year after year don’t make up for what business could come in if there was year-round vehicle access to her property on Colter Pass.
“I love my guys, and I’m looking forward to seeing them again this winter,” said Pitman. “But we need a little bit broader customer base.”
Best of Both Worlds
Briggs pointed out that plowing the road doesn’t mean the end of the snowmobile culture in Cooke City. Rather, it would open the community to even more winter opportunities.
“We just feel that we would get so much more diversity and business with this road open,” she said. “We get so many people (in the) spring, fall trying to just take the scenic route through from east to west or west to east. And we would get so many more skiers and snowboarders that don’t own snowmobiles and can’t get up here.”
A flood in June set in motion a “just-in-case” scenario, in which the governors of Wyoming and Montana, as well as the National Park Service, created a plan to plow the plug if construction on the highway to the west of Silvergate was delayed.
Harrison pointed out that those plans – which included an alternate route for snowmobilers around the plowed highway – could easily be put into place now that they’ve been developed.
“The Forest Service does this stuff all the time. It’s called a categorical exclusion,” she explained. “And they were willing to do that this year, had the construction not gotten done.”
‘Cooke City Isn’t Going To Die’
Harrison said that PARC has received support from the Gardiner and Red Lodge, Montana, city leadership and is hoping for a face-to-face meeting with Governor Gianforte regarding their petition.
But the governor’s position in the aftermath of this summer’s flood, which closed down the region’s access route temporarily, proves that interagency cooperation in plowing the road is feasible.
“In that (emergency declaration) there’s WYDOT (the Wyoming Department of Transportation), MDOT (Montana Department of Transportation), both national forests (Gallatin and Shoshone), both governors (Gianforte and Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon),” said Harrison. “And it was to us a really great example of the leaders serving their citizens in a time of crises. And it was also a great example that it can be done.”
Harrison added that any plowing arrangement doesn’t have to change the status of the highway.
“Wyoming and Montana can come up with whatever plowing agreement that they want to plow each section,” she said.
Pitman, like Briggs, said she truly wants what’s best for the community that she loves.
“The majority of the people in Cooke City and Silvergate are wonderful,” she said. “I care about my community. (Terri) cares about her community. And the sooner we can get this open the better, and people will start realizing that Cooke City isn’t going to die. We’re going to survive if we get the road open.”
Snowmobile enthusiasts who wish to protect the unique winter heritage and recreational aspects of Cooke City as it has been are also looking to be part of the conversation. Their point of view can be found at protectourplug.org and will be the subject of an upcoming Cowboy State Daily story.