Yellowstone asks Wyoming to adopt ‘orphan’ Beartooth Highway

The Beartooth Highway is a high-altitude scenic byway that snakes along the Montana-Wyoming border and tops out at nearly 11,000 feet.

Phil Armitage photo/Wikimedia

The Beartooth Highway is a high-altitude scenic byway that snakes along the Montana-Wyoming border and tops out at nearly 11,000 feet.

Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk traveled to Cheyenne on Thursday to ask Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and state transportation officials to participate in a unique adopt-a-highway program.

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.

Danyel Straight-Chitwood photographs a scenic view from a bus during a 2010 trip along the Beartooth Highway.

Ruffin Prevost / Yellowstone Gate

Danyel Straight-Chitwood photographs a scenic view from a bus during a 2010 trip along the Beartooth Highway.

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.

Bruce McCormack, editor and publisher of the Cody Enterprise, is one of seven Transportation Commission members representing three- and four-county regions across Wyoming. He said after the meeting that the Commission is “obviously concerned about the high and uncertain construction and maintenance costs,” as well as the highway’s pending historic designation.

Allowing Wyoming to 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.

More cooperation possible

Kim Capron, project coordinator for Friends of the Beartooth All-American Road, 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.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, left, shakes hands with Cody Country Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Scott Balyo as Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk looks on. The men were among those attending a May 2013 luncheon at Old Faithful Lodge to mark the end of National Travel and Tourism Week and the successulf cooperative effort to plow park roads. (Ruffin Prevost/Yellowstone Gate)

Ruffin Prevost / Yellowstone Gate

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, left, shakes hands with Cody Country Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Scott Balyo as Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk looks on. The men were among those attending a May 2013 luncheon at Old Faithful Lodge to mark the end of National Travel and Tourism Week and the successulf cooperative effort to plow park roads. (Ruffin Prevost/Yellowstone Gate)

“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.

Both MacKay and McCormack said Thursday’s meetings were informative, and are likely to be followed by additional discussions and further consideration. But no immediate action from Wyoming is planned in response to Wenk’s request.

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.

Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or ruffin@yellowstonegate.com.

9 thoughts on “Yellowstone asks Wyoming to adopt ‘orphan’ Beartooth Highway

  1. The ‘orphan’ 10 mile stretch, which is mostly in Montana, has been in contention for years. Montana sees no benefit; Cooke City people want it for emergency services, for access to Cody stores, and for more business income. The main opponents are the snowmobilers, yet plowing would greatly benefit Cody businesses in the winter as well. Cody basically shuts down in the winter, but if this small section were plowed (and snowmobilers could still use the side of the road for Beartooth access), people would fly into Cody for winter wildlife watching and classes in the Park. Gardiner and Cody would be the only drive-in access towns from November through April. For Wyoming, it’s only a win-win, yet its still something people are fighting over. And since the plow is already up there till Pilot, those extra 10 miles wouldn’t take much.

    As far as the spring plowing of the Beartooth highway over the pass, the highway in the past opened by Memorial Day. Its a tremendous amount of work, sometimes with the snow accumulation many feet thick, and I do wonder if Wyoming is open to take on that commitment.

  2. I hope I live long enough to see Wyoming and especially Wy-DOT pull its heads out of their …uh , cowboy hat and hard hat , and get real about the Beartooth Highway .

    Adopt the child . It’s yours. Out of wedlock, but it’s your asphalt kid.

    What the State of Wyoming and Matt Mead, and WY-DOT and its rep here need to get real about is one fact that floats to the top: Yellowstone Park is Wyoming’c CASH COW. We haul in $ 6 – 8 million per year directly into Wyoming state tax coffers every year. Sales Tax, Lodging Tax, and at least $ 450,000 per year in Wyo State Fuel Tax —and that was BEFORE the 1o cent in crease that went into effect last July . I expect the Wyoming haul of fuel tax will climb to over $ 600,000 a year in 2014 and beyond. So THERE is your operating revenue to cover to chore.

    Wyoming takes all this money FROM Yellowstone and gives back nothing but grief.
    The “plug” segment of the road between our Chief Joseph state highway and the Northeast Entrance at Silvergate is fully rebuilt , near new , and up to federal highway spec in every way. When WY-DOT says they won;t even think about taking over Beartooth maintenance until that highway is completely rebuilt to modern standards is a total red herring. Total obfuscation on Wy-DOT’s part. A defacto policy that cannot be rationalized. Cooke Pass is already made to order . So plow it !

    In fact, a simple MOU between Wy-DOT and Mt-DOT would allow the Cooke Pass segment to be keep open yearround. Screw the snowmobilers…they can hault their toys by truck and trailer that 9 miles. They lose nothing. The rest of us gain everything. Much easier to plow a road open incrementally than wait till spring and have to cut down thru several feet of hardpacked ice.
    There is no reason why Cooke Pass is not open yearround. US 212 is a federal primary highway serving states from Minnesota where it starts thru the Dakotas and Montana then Wyoming. We fail at keeping up our responsibilty. Of course the alpine section of the highway should remain ” Closed in Winter ” and the people who make GPS navigation software fully apprised of that . But Cooke Pass is a vital connector road. It deserves yearround access. QED

    Wenk is right. Wyoming and Montana need to take over responsibilities here. It’s long past the time Wyoming came out of denial and stepped up. Yellowstone has already provided Whyoming the revenue to accomplish this, but we spend it somewhere else, egregiously.

  3. I think the action by Wyoming on not plowing the road is very short sighted. The sales tax money that Yellowstone Park collects goes to Wyoming and has to be a large sum of money. It is time for Wyoming to maintain this road.

  4. …The State of Wyoming and the local Cody snowmobile club are running a scam. Here is the deal. Pilot Creek parking lot is the end or beginning of the road. Whichever way you want to look at it. From this parking area, only snowmobile traffic can get to Montana-Cooke City. To do so. These folks have to buy a Wyoming sticker to ride the stretch of road to Cooke City(if this is their destination) or to ride in Montana. It is a scam, and the good folks of Wyoming know this. See. Many of the people that are coming to Cooke City aren’t coming to ride in Wyoming. The area around Cooke City in Montana is the destination. Now of course because these people are unfairly taxed just to get the 7 miles to town. Some will choose to ride in Wyoming. But to say that People are buying stickers to primarily come ride in Wyoming is a joke.

    Now sure there are some that do. And the local Cooke City Snowmobile shops selling Wyoming permits will also make this claim. The truth is. Many of these people would not choose to buy the permits if they could drive into Cooke City. Why would they? Again. Some may. But those permit sales would see a decline. The snowmobiler counts that the State relies on are which are skewed in their favor would reveal less number coming to Wyoming to ride. As the scam would be exposed. A lot of funds at stake. And the Local Cody Snowmobile club knows it.

    The sad part is that over 75 percent of the winter business people in Cooke City are in favor of the road being open in a larger capacity. Either extended from the mid part of March to Thanksgiving. Or for many…All year.

    The State of Wyoming(Montana is guilty as well) has it wrong that taking care of this road is a burden. It should be seen as an opportunity for growth. It should be noted the amount of money, the amount of time spent to repair this road. What a waste of taxpayer money to make the necessary improvements, Yet it sits under snow and ice for 5 months. Access limited to those on snowmobiles.

    Pathetic.

  5. I strongly agree with all of the above comments. It makes no sense that Wyoming is so eager to turn their back on this road, when YNP and GTNP are the biggest money makers for the state. Providing winter access to the park from the northeast entrance seems like a huge incentive for Wyoming to take responsibility. Do they not WANT to capitalize on winter tourism monies? Right now, Montana is taking all of it, and at least Montana has contributed to maintenance of this road, so they’re giving something back.

    I came very, very close to moving to Cody, WY, this past summer, but the simple fact the Beartooth Highway wasn’t open in winter months held me back. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been torn between wanting to be close to Yellowstone and between becoming a citizen of a state that clearly doesn’t value their outdoor splendor the way I do. Earn respect from tourists, Wyoming!

  6. this move by the park actually puts wyoming in the catbird seat, if given the opportunity wyomings answer should be a resounding yes, on the condition that more snow machine traffic be allowed into the east gate of the park during the winter months. the increase in tourist revenue would go a quite a ways to help offset the expense of maintenance of the highway

  7. Upon further reflection last night it occurred to me that maybe we could conscript an eastern liberal Senator in Congress to draft a bill removing Yellowstone’s responsibility for US Hwy 212 altogether. It makes no sense that Yellowstone is strapped with caring for a highway 60 miles outside is boundary. Let the highway default to State management like all the other primary highways built with federal funds but required to be maintained by the states ( with federal funding assistance , usually ). It’s obvious this is not just a National Park approach road these days… it’s a standalone highway with its own travel merits. A great many tourists travel it separately from any excursion into or out of Yellowstone.

    Drop Yellowstone’s obligation to the Beartooth Highway . The National parks Approach Act originally had four ( or maybe five) highways scheduled to be constructed way back when, but only the Beartooth was done. Why should Yellowstone be shackled with the road in this day and age? it should not

    YNP having thus abdicated its unwanted extra-Park burden , the States will have to step up or let the road squander. At least it would then become an honest approach, the ball being in the p[roper court. IMO