The meeting was called by Park County, Mont., Commissioner Marty Malone after citizens approached him about keeping the road open year round. Under the status quo, the eight-mile portion of the highway is open only to snowmobile travel in the winter months.
Some advocates say plowing the road would provide faster emergency services to the Cooke City and Silver Gate, Mont., communities, give the public greater access to Yellowstone in the winter and potentially bring in coveted winter tourism dollars for the area. Opponents raise concerns like swamping the otherwise quiet communities with winter traffic, severing an acclaimed snowmobile trail system and the expense of year-round plowing.
The Friends of the Beartooth All-American Road will be facilitating Friday’s public meeting, which is scheduled to run from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the Cooke City Visitor Center.
The Friends group doesn’t have a position on the plowing issue.
“The part that we think is the most important is that everybody’s included in the conversation,” said Kim Capron, the Friends’ project coordinator.
When dealing with a stretch of road that begins in Wyoming inside a national forest (the Shoshone), heads into Montana and another national forest (the Gallatin) and then reaches Cooke City just east of Yellowstone, there are a lot of folks to include.
Capron said the primary intent of the meeting is to gather federal and state officials who have the knowledge and jurisdiction of the highway to provide factual information about the logistics of plowing. The meeting will be in a question and answer format, allowing officials — specifically county commissioners — and members of the public to “get the answers they really need,” Capron said, saying there’s been some misconceptions about how the highway is managed.
The meeting is not being set up to be a forum where folks stand up and give their opinion. Instead, the Friends group is asking folks to submit written comments, reports and opinion statements prior to the meeting. That information will be complied and distributed via email and in hard copy at the meeting.
The Upper Yellowstone Snowmobile Club in Cooke City, the Wyoming State Snowmobile Association and the Cody Country Snowmobile Association have already voiced opposition to plowing the stretch. Speaking to Park County, Wyo., commissioners earlier this month, Cody Country snowmobilers said plowing the road would likely forever separate the Cooke City-area trails from the rest of the Beartooth trail system. The two systems are now connected by the groomed, snow-covered highway.
“If we break it, we’re not going to get it back,” said Bert Miller, president of the Cody Country group and vice president of the state association.
Shoshone Forest restrictions aimed at protecting the habitat of Canada lynx, a threatened species, prohibit additional motorized trails from being built.
The Shoshone’s Wapiti District Ranger, Terry Root, told commissioners that identifying and approving a new trail route would be a “major process” if the highway was plowed and that would be “totally outside of the economic impacts of who’s going to plow it.”
“If you’ve got enough money to spend, anything’s possible, but the question is, is it feasible?” Root said.
By splitting up the Montana and Wyoming trails, Miller said many snowmobilers in Cooke City would no longer need to buy Wyoming permits — dropping revenue for trail maintenance.
He also cited the economic importance of snowmobiling, pointing to a recent snowmobile association-commissioned issue paper which found Beartooth sledding brings in $5.8 million annually.
Commissioners expressed mixed views on plowing.
Commissioner Joe Tilden said he was “certainly not” an advocate, and Commission Chairman Bucky Hall expressed concern about disconnecting the trails systems and the cost of plowing.
Commissioners Tim French and Dave Burke indicated they would like more information.
Burke asked if plowing would really ruin the snowmobiling.
“It’s not as if the entire trail system’s gone,” he said, adding he understands it would complicate things. On the other hand, Burke asked, “How much additional benefit will Park County receive if the road is open?”
Root cautioned that if the snow plug was plowed and Cooke City residents suddenly had road access through the North and Northeast gates, Yellowstone managers might reconsider their current procedure of plowing from the North Entrance near Gardiner, Mont., to Cooke City.
Tilden echoed that prediction. “That would scare the heck out of me,” he said.
In its recently-released draft environmental impact statement on winter use, the Park Service did not consider changing how the stretch from Gardiner to Cooke City is managed, citing its role in the regional transportation network.
Mart Knapp, a former snowmobile dealer who’s currently the Park County Homeland Security Coordinator, said the plowing idea seems to come up about every five years.
“I think it’s just one of those recurring conversations ... and it’s come up again that people are really interested in the facts about what goes on with that highway,” Capron said.
Written information also will be accepted at the meeting.