By Mark Heinz
A seemingly intractable conflict between snowmobilers and other interests about whether to plow Cooke Pass during the winter could be resolved.
But not anytime soon; for now, the status quo remains and the road won't be plowed.
That was the overall message from officials and others who attended a meeting in late May which filled the Montana Visitor Center in Cooke City.
The road in question is an eight-mile stretch of US 212 between the Pilot Creek parking lot and Cooke City. It currently is not plowed during the winter and hasn't been for many years.
Though whether to plow the road has been a contentious issue, discussion during the meeting, which drew about 70 people, was mostly amicable. Emotions ran high at some points, with some in the audience applauding or shouting encouragement to various speakers.
At one point, a man who did not identify himself, but had not previously been in the meeting, strode to the front of the room to loudly declare his opinion.
"I heard this was going on today, and I have a car load of clients outside. It (plowing) would be good for the economy," he said, drawing a mixture of applause and cat-calls from the audience.
He then left without saying anything else.
The meeting was organized by Park County, Mont., Commission Chairman Marty Malone and facilitated by Friends of the Beartooth All-American Road.
Malone said the last concerted effort to get the road plowed was in the 1980s. He said some Cooke City residents had approached him about another attempt to get the road plowed, but they didn't represent any formal organization.
All the Park County, Wyo., commissioners except Dave Burke attended, along with officials from the Park Service, Forest Service and the Wyoming and Montana departments of transportation.
The audience was about evenly split between Cooke City residents and those from elsewhere, mostly Wyoming.
In a simple show of hands called by commissioner Joe Tilden at the end of the four-hour meeting, about two-thirds of the audience indicated opposition to plowing the road.
But, it was pointed out, that vote didn't make clear whether those people were opposed to plowing under any conditions.
Several audience members spoke in favor of or against plowing the road.
The main objection to plowing is the concern that it would break a link in a network of prime snowmobiling trails in the two states. Snowmobilers use the road in the winter to enjoy about 125 miles of trails near Cooke City on the Montana side and in the Beartooth Mountains on the Wyoming side.
Plowing the road would break that link and probably greatly diminish sledders' use, especially on the Wyoming side, plowing opponents said.
Some Cooke City business owners said they don't want to risk losing the revenue from snowmobile tourism.
Cooke City Exxon owner Susan Jack said her business garners thousands of dollars every year from the sale of snowmobile stickers. And there is also the money sledders spend on food, fuel and lodging, she said.
The linked trail system between Montana and Wyoming draws sledders from around the country, Jack and others said.
Commissioner Loren Grosskopf said as a county official, he would consider all sides. But from a personal perspective as a snowmobiler, he said he opposes plowing the road.
On the other side of the debate, there was concern raised about Cooke City having only one route for emergency vehicle access during the winter.
It was pointed out other forms of tourism which could benefit Cooke City and Wyoming—such as winter wildlife watching in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley—are hobbled by the road not being plowed.
Robin Berry, who owns a bed and breakfast inn in Cody, said high fuel prices and other factors are causing a decline in snowmobiling, while her clients are increasingly showing interest in winter wolf watching and similar pursuits in Yellowstone.
Other speakers questioned the fairness of all taxpayers funding the road, but only snowmobilers having access to it during the winter.
Berry suggested a possible compromise would be to groom the snow on the road, to allow both snowmobiles and wheeled traffic. That's been done in other areas, she said.
But officials noted that might not work for Cooke City, because Wyoming and Montana have statutes forbidding wheeled vehicles and sleds to use a stretch of road at the same time.
Another option might be to plow the road, and then build an off-road snowmobile trail, thus keeping the Wyoming and Montana sled trails linked.
That's possible, but the process of getting it approved could take years, Shoshone Forest District Ranger Terry Root said.
Though no formal decisions were made among the officials at the meeting, they agreed an economic impact study is in order. Such a study could determine the benefits of snowmobiling as well as what, if any, benefits might come from opening the road up to other forms of winter tourism.
Park Service willing to consider plowing Cooke Pass—if officially asked
Answering a lingering question regarding who would plow Cooke Pass, a Park Service spokesman said his agency would be willing to—but only if officially asked to do so by local governments which would have to help pay for the work.
Otherwise, the Park Service will leave things as they are, and not plow that section, said Steve Iobst, the Acting Deputy Superintendent of Yellowstone Park.
It would probably take a formal request from the county commissions in either or both Park County, Wyo., and Park County, Mont., to prompt the Park Service to plow an eight-mile stretch between the Pilot Creek parking lot and Cooke City, said Iobst, who also serves as Yellowstone's Chief of Maintenance.
The county or counties would also have to be willing to help pay for the plowing, he said.
The Park Service already plows the road inside Yellowstone from Mammoth Hot Springs to Cooke City, and has no plans to quit, Iobst said. Plowing from Cooke City to Pilot Creek could essentially be an extension of that job, he said.
Regardless of whether the park ever takes on the added stretch, any section of road could be temporarily closed at any time during the winter if the weather gets severe enough to make plowing impractical, Iobst said.
"Sometimes, it snows or drifts too heavily for us to keep up with it," he said.
Park County, Wyo., crews plow the road to Pilot Creek from the intersection of WYO 296 and US 212, and have no plans to stop doing that, commissioners said. But neither would the county be willing to plow all the way into Cooke City, they said.
Meanwhile, representatives of the Wyoming and Montana departments of transportation both affirmed their agencies would probably not plow that section of road.
"We are not going to grow our system. We are at the maximum we think we can maintain," said WYDOT District Maintenance Engineer Ron Huff. "We don't want to take on that responsibility. We just don't have the money to do it."
Montana DOT Jon Swartz said it isn't likely his agency would take on the job either, but any final decision would rest with his agency's director and Montana's governor.
Sled trail would face long process
Plowing Cooke Pass, and then building an off-road snowmobile trail to keep trail systems in Wyoming and Montana linked might be more feasible than previously thought, Shoshone Forest District Ranger Terry Root says.
But the process could still take 3-5 years, he added.
In previous talks with the Park County, Wyo., Commission, Root said the idea of a new sled trail would probably not work, because the area in question is protected Lynx habitat.
But at the meeting in Cooke City, Root said further research has revealed the Lynx habitat is not an insurmountable hurdle.
Even so, an Environmental Impact Study would still be required, and any planned trail would still be subject to objections and possible lawsuits, Root said.
"Once the process started, there would be no assurances as to how it would end up," he said.
Gallatin Forest Gardiner District Ranger Mary Maj confirmed a single EIS would cover the entire length of any proposed trail. Though a trail would run in both Wyoming and Montana, it would all be on federal forest land, she said.
The linear distance now covered by the road is about 8 miles. But a trail would have to twist, turn, climb and descend, making its actual distance further, she said.
That could make the project costly, she and Root said, though neither could give any estimates as to how much.
Mark Heinz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org