The debate over plowing the highway is a perennial one, it seems: locals say opening the road would boost the economy by providing easier access to the small town on the edge of Yellowstone. Right now the only way to access Cooke City in wintertime is to enter the North Entrance and drive through the Yellowstone Lamar Valley. Adding Hwy. 212 to the mix would allow easier access to Cody and Billings for both locals and tourists.
There’s also a safety issue here, according to Park County Commissioners: because the road between the North Entrance and Cooke City is sometimes closed, locals are stranded in the case of a medical emergency. (In more than one case paramedics transported patients via snowmobile over Hwy. 212 for medical treatment in Cody.) Having an alternative would increase public safety.
Plowing Hwy. 212 is an expensive proposition: the Colter Pass receives a ton of snowfall (as of April 8 there was still 10 feet of snow on the ground), and the highway winds its way through both Montana and Wyoming (with six of the eight miles of highway in Wyoming), meaning multiple jurisdictions need to sign off on any deal. Plus, technically, Hwy. 212 is a federal highway, so the Forest Service and the National Park Service will end up being players as well.
There is one interesting subtext here, one that is also playing out in the debate over the Yellowstone Winter Use Plan proposed by the National Park Service, currently in draft form: the lessening role of snowmobilers in the local winter economy. In the past, many Cooke City residents didn’t necessarily push for the plowing; there were enough snowmobilers hitting town to keep the Soda Butte and the bars open. (Hwy. 212 is groomed for snowmobilers: it’s a link in the Beartooth snowmobile trail system.) That’s not true anyway: snowmobile sales continue to decline as sleds become more expensive. There’s been a definite decline in snowmobile use in the region, which does cause ripples in the local economy. A 2001 report indicated $5.8 million in economic activity was generated by snowmobilers using the Beartooth snowmobile trail, but that was when there were far more snowmobilers using the trail. And Yellowstone National Park officials clearly are planning for a future winter-use plan with fewer sleds.
In any case, it will interesting to see if all sides can come together to discuss a plowing plan. The snowmobile lobbies in Wyoming and Montana still carry a lot of weight, probably disproportionate to their numbers. Wyoming officials don’t see too eager to move forward on any plan, so in the end it may end up being all talk.