To plow or not to plow? Wyoming and Montana residents are polarized about the ‘plug’ on Beartooth Highway
Cooke City is a small mountain town in the southwest corner of Montana that is known for being the snowiest town in the state and is also a gateway town to Yellowstone National Park. In the winter, there is only one driving road into the town from the west, because to the east is a nine mile stretch of highway that is not plowed. That nine miles has created a lot of controversy amongst locals.
“It’s about safety and tourism,” said Joelle Passerello, who is one of the 77 year round residents in Cooke City.
Passerello supports plowing this short section of Highway 212. She thinks more people would visit and it would be safer for residents to have two exits out of town.
Currently, the only way out of town driving by car is going down into Yellowstone and then back up into Montana – forming a ‘C’ shape. Livingston is the closest major city on the route – about three hours away.
Passerello’s car recently broke down. And so far, no tow truck is willing to pick it up.
“So that means I am without a car, three and a half hours from the closest grocery store right now,” she said. “I am without a car, without a bus, without a train, without anything.”
Passerello said a much closer and easier option would be to take the highway into Cody, Wyo., which is only about an hour and a half away if one could drive. But since that nine mile stretch is not plowed, people can only snowmobile it, not drive. Locals refer to this nine mile section as the ‘plug.’
People use the plug to recreate, as it is groomed and leads to a lot of other backcountry trails.
“It lends to an atmosphere for skiers and snowmobilers that you cannot find anywhere else,” said Kay Whittle, a founder of Protect our Plug (POP). “It is just a winter wonderland.”
Whittle runs a year-round hotel in Cooke City. She said that the plug brings in a lot of snowmobile tourism.
“We have a very good business and if business were bad, if winters were terrible, and there was no money to be made, I promise you we would not be in the position we're in,” Whittle said.
But, what some see as a recreational haven and way of life, others, like Passerello, see as a nuisance and liability.
“You definitely gotta plan,” said Terri Briggs, president of the Cooke City Chamber of Commerce and owner of a year-round lodge on the plug. “Everything you do. Like getting the garbage to the dump. You load it all in behind your snowmobile in the sled, you tie it all down, so you don't lose it going up and down. Everything you do is just harder.”
Briggs supports plowing the plug – this group is known as the Park Access Recommendation Committee. Briggs said if you live on the plug, the best option for accessing groceries, healthcare and basic services is snowmobiling out toward Cody.
“So my pickup is parked on the east side, and I usually make it in an hour and 20 minutes to Cody,” she said. “But you add that up, that's three hours of drive time for going to town.”
That same parking lot Briggs uses is where a lot of snowmobilers park their trucks and trailers too.
Bert Miller is with the Cody Country Snowmobile Association and is part of POP. Miller said if the plug was plowed right now, all those rigs would have to park on the side of the road.
“It's really tough when a road is plowed and you're driving along and there's five- six-foot berms left and right, where to find a place to park, if the infrastructure isn't there,” he said.
Miller said alternate parking would be needed before plowing, but also an alternate trail that mimics the plug.
“We are very open, as long as there's a trail and some parking areas that can be put in, to where we can enhance the sport of snowmobiling and other winter sports,” he said.
And actually, people on both sides of the issue agree on taking the time to figure out the best solution. To plow the road would likely be a collaboration between the Montana and Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT).
WYDOT director Luke Reiner said the agency has not been asked to plow the plug, but theoretically, the costs to plow would be about $8,000 per mile.
“And that is not people, that's not labor,” he said. “That's equipment and material.”
Reiner said to invest in infrastructure and facilities to plow long-term could be upwards of a million dollars.
As for creating parking areas or alternate trails, that would go through the U.S. Forest Service, which said it would need more information on the proposal before beginning an environmental analysis.
“One problem, that you may be aware of is the topography of the area as well as the proximity of the highway to a wilderness area to the east,” Kristie Thompson, Shoshone National Forest Service public affairs officer, said in a written statement.
Both those for and against plowing the plug submitted letters and petitions to Wyoming and Montana’s governors this year. State leaders indicated they want to see full local support either way before taking action. Most recently, about 75 percent of residents did sign a petition to plow the highway.
But for this winter season, that option is already off the table. Back in Cooke City with Joelle Passarello, her kids were shoveling snow from a recent storm.
“They’re shoveling the 53 inches of snow off the porch that I was unable to get to because I had a broken foot,” she said.
Until she figures out a car situation, she is relying on the help of friends. The highway will not open to vehicles until May.