Wenk wasn’t looking for volunteers to clean up roadside litter. Instead, he asked Wyoming to take ownership of an “orphan” stretch of the Beartooth Highway. The soaring, scenic byway connects the Montana towns of Cooke City and Red Lodge, but it also passes through nearly 35 miles of high country just inside Wyoming’s northern boundary.
Neither Mead nor members of the Wyoming Transportation Commission — which governs the state’s Department of Transportation — appear eager to take on the massive financial burden that would come with assuming ownership of the road.
The question of who should pay to maintain the Beartooth Highway has been a political football almost since the road’s completion in 1936. The issue has resurfaced after congressional budget battles last year brought deep spending cuts under Sequestration to kick off Yellowstone’s summer. The season ended with a two-week closure of all national parks under a partial federal government shutdown.
The National Park Service has assumed responsibility for most of the highway since the 1940s. But Wenk told commission members that Yellowstone’s newly reduced budget is now stretched too thin to make the Beartooth a prime concern.
“The work we do on the Beartooth Highway will always be secondary to the work we do in the park,” he said. “I’m telling you it can’t be our highest priority.”
The Beartooth Highway is the only project funded and completed through the federal Park Approach Act of 1931, according to records from the Central Federal Lands Highway Division. A 1982 Interior Department legal opinion determined that, until a state or other entity assumes ownership of a segment, the Park Service has “the responsibility for the usual maintenance actions such as repaving, filling potholes, striping and even reconstruction of the road.”
Changing travel trends
A 2006 report by the Federal Highway Administration states that “in the early years, Wyoming was never expected or formally asked to maintain” its portion of the road, which primarily serves Red Lodge, Cooke City and Yellowstone.
But commissioners were reminded that automobile travel and tourism patterns have changed over the decades, and the route connects with Wyoming’s Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, bringing an estimated $20 million in annual tourist spending to the gateway town of Cody.
Montana began maintaining 15 miles of the eastern section of the road in 1965, but most of the highway remains unclaimed by either state, according to FHA records. That includes a nearly 10-mile Montana segment — from Yellowstone’s Northeast Gate through Cooke City to the Wyoming line — that is still maintained by the Park Service.
Portions of the highway are in poor condition, and neither state has wanted to assume the long-term costs of plowing, maintenance and reconstruction.
WYDOT chief engineer Del McOmie told the commission that fixing outstanding issues on Wyoming sections of the highway would cost “many tens of millions of dollars,” and estimated annual maintenance expenses at $480,000 or more.
The Beartooth has been nominated for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, and McOmie said that the highway’s designation as a historical route could complicate and raise the cost of future design and repair work. He also stated that Wyoming already has a $64 million shortfall in maintaining existing roads.
Allowing Wyoming plow its segment of the Beartooth Highway is an idea some Cody business leaders have raised as a way to free up funds in Yellowstone’s budget for plowing park entrances on time, while also ensuring the Beartooth is open by Memorial Day weekend each year.
McOmie said a state statute typically prohibits WYDOT employees from working on roads that aren’t part of Wyoming’s highway system, which the Beartooth is not.
Kim Capron, project coordinator for Friends of the Beartooth Highway, said a cooperative effort last spring between WYDOT and the Park Service to plow Yellowstone roads leading to Cody and Jackson, Wyo., proved that the state could work out a similar agreement for the Beartooth.
The Park Approach Act gave the Park Service authority to contract for maintenance of the road, but it never established a funding mechanism for maintaining the highway.
“That road is a national treasure, but we can never get to the point where someone cares enough to fund it properly,” Capron said.
She praised the creative funding approaches WYDOT has adopted in recent years in seeking federal grants for the highway, as well as how the agency has cooperated closely with Montana and federal agencies to rehabilitate small sections of the road as money becomes available.
WYDOT officials have long said they would only consider adopting the road if it is brought up to the state’s maintenance standards. Even if that happened, there appears to be little upside for Wyoming in taking over the road.
While it might free up money in Yellowstone’s budget to ensure that spring plowing inside the park stays on schedule, many Wyoming officials are quick to point out that is already part of the Park Service’s job.
Mead spokesman Renny MacKay said the governor believes “the Park Service should prepare a budget that provides for plowing its roads, opening on time and otherwise meeting its management responsibilities.”
Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash characterized the meeting between Wenk and Mead as “cordial,” and said they also discussed winter use, bison management and other issues.
Studies have shown that children are typically less likely to be adopted as they get older. Based on the cautious initial reactions to Wenk’s request, the adoption prospects don’t seem bright for the 78-year-old orphan that is the Beartooth Highway.