As seen in The Powell Tribune, December 20, 2022
By Mark Davis
A group embroiled in the argument whether to plow the plug wants to deescalate the argument — at least until after the holiday season.
As the debate about plowing a section of U.S. Highway 212 between Cooke City, Montana, and the Pilot Creek parking area (commonly referred to as “the plug”) has raged in recent weeks and months, it has caused a separation between those hoping to open the road to commerce and emergency services and those who want to protect traditional outdoor sports that for decades have grown due to the area’s snow cover and available trails.
“It was like the Hatfields and the McCoys,” said Bert Miller, a board member on Protect Our Plug (or POP for short).
“There are tremendously different opinions within the community itself,” he later said, hoping to soften his use of feuding families as a metaphor.
POP seeks to preserve and protect Cooke City’s unique winter heritage and recreational access to the surrounding mountains. Miller is also on the board with the Cody Country Snowmobile Association and is a 1981 graduate of Powell High School.
There were open quarrels and, for a short time — until law enforcement put a stop to it — an unidentified resident decided to take the issue into their own hands and use personal equipment to plow the section of highway. The tight-knit communities of Silver Gate and Cooke City seemed to be unraveling as the decades-old debate came to a head after June floods damaged the highway and business owners and residents feared they would face isolation due to the natural disaster.
The vitriol was starting to damage relationships in the communities with a combined population of about 165 residents, according to the most recent census report.
Board members for POP have decided to slow their end of the rhetoric in hopes of cooling the over-heated debate.
What the group is hoping for, Miller said, are combined meetings between POP and the Park Access Recommendation Committee.
Miller was the guest speaker at the Dec. 7 meeting of the Park County Outdoor Collaborative, whose mission is to realize social and economic benefits while protecting the area’s natural and cultural resources and respecting private property rights. The group signed its charter early this year.
Miller’s goal was to present important facts about the recreational opportunities in the Beartooth Mountains without adding flames to the fire.
“Everybody needs to sit down and kind of take a look at it and work with the Forest Service. There’s just so much more that has to be analyzed,” he said.
He claims goals on both sides of the debate aren’t mutually exclusive. Members of POP would support the road being plowed as long as a path for snowmobilers remains and other issues associated with plowing the road are taken into consideration. But he cautions a decision could still be three to five years out due to the slower pace of federal requirements for building in a national forest.
Without planning, outdoor recreation enthusiasts would lose miles of trails if the road, which is the main groomed trail for recreational access to the backcountry, is plowed without consideration for snowmobilers.
“One of the things that people do forget is, if that road was plowed without an additional trail put in some way to protect all sports, all of [the nine miles of groomed trails] would be gone,” he said.
Additionally, a 6-mile trail and the Pilot Creek parking facility could be in jeopardy as well, he said.
However, rather than dwelling on the plug during his speech, he spent his time discussing the huge impact snowmobiling has in the state of Wyoming.
“Snowmobiling generated a total of $255 million per year of economic activity to Wyoming’s economy [in the 2021-22 season],” he said quoting a University of Wyoming study.
The same study shows a solid gain over the previous decade, which documented $175 million per year of economic activity in the 2011-12 season.
While Miller hoped to remind steering committee members of the importance of the sport, he also wanted to do so in a way that would diffuse recent vitriol.
“We’re not going to get into the weeds,” he said.
In a Monday interview, Miller reiterated his desire to put the debate to rest until the new year.
“I hope people in Cooke City are focusing on Christmas and good spirits,” he said, adding, “We can get back to the more tedious work after the first of the year and sit down and start looking at the future.”
The good news is the snow, Miller said.
“Snow is already double what we had [last year], so we’re hoping we can have a really good season.”
Drawing tourists to the area is what the communities need right now after summer was all but lost when Yellowstone National Park’s Northeast Entrance and the highway were shut after the flood. Miller said the study shows more than 60% of snowmobilers frequenting the area are from out-of-state and in need of lodging and supplies.
Both sides of the issue have at least one thing in common; their appreciation in the speed of recovery of the Northeast Entrance Road. When there were worries the park wouldn’t be able to get the road open in time, Montana and Wyoming entered into an emergency compact agreement to get the section plowed should construction run long. But the project was open for public traffic in remarkable fashion — only four months to the day from the flood
“Cam Sholly has really done an unbelievable, fantastic job,” Miller said. “It shows what can be done when people come together.”
PARC consultant Shaleas Harrison agrees that future meetings should include folks from both side of the debate. She hopes to bring Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte to Cooke City for a meeting to “look at a solution that addresses the concerns of everybody.”
“Frankly, snowmobilers are our big user group. In the winter they’re our most important clientele. The residents don’t want to hinder snowmobiling — they like to snowmobile themselves. And they want to continue serving that clientele.”
The collaborative had several other topics to discuss, including work progressing on the installation of a new boat ramp on the southern bank of the Shoshone River just south of Powell. They also updated issues dealing with the Outlaw Trail, near Cody and opening access to public land for recreation at Lane 17, where there are hopes to replace a bridge across the Heart Mountain Irrigation canal.
The group is also gearing up for a three-day public convention in April that will include all county recreational collaboratives in the state. The event will be held April 26-28 in Laramie in conjunction with the University of Wyoming.
The collaboratives are also working with the university on a statewide outdoor recreation report that could be used to prove the value of recreational activities. Seven counties have recreation collaboratives, including Big Horn Basin and Wind River groups.
The Park County collaborative meetings have been highly attended with more than 40 in attendance earlier this month. The group includes federal, state and county representatives, citizens and other stakeholders with the common goal of encouraging outdoor recreation.