Cooke City may be a little quieter than usual this spring. That’s because the isolated mountain town of 75 on the northeast edge of Yellowstone National Park won’t have its snowed-in dead end on Highway 212 plowed until late May.
Yellowstone, which plows the highway, had to cut 5 percent from its budget to meet the federal government’s sequestration requirements that went into effect Friday. The cuts affect all national parks and monuments.
“It has a really huge impact on these communities,” said Kim Capron, of the Friends of the Beartooth All-American Road, which includes the communities of Cooke City and Cody in Wyoming and Red Lodge. “And it has a ripple effect. People change travel plans, then they go somewhere else.”
In a teleconference on Monday, park Superintendent Dan Wenk announced that snowplows wouldn’t open Highway 212 between Cooke City and the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway -- a 10-mile stretch -- until May 24. Then crews would move on to the Beartooth Highway, clearing the Wyoming side of that popular route that connects Cooke City and Yellowstone to Red Lodge. Wenk predicted the road would open on June 14 instead of on the Friday before Memorial Day.
Other roads will open sooner. The route between West Yellowstone and Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful will open on April 26, one week later than normal. The road from Norris Junction to Canyon Village will open on May 3, two weeks later than previously scheduled.
Yellowstone intends to open the road from the park’s East Entrance to Fishing Bridge, Lake and Canyon Village no later than May 17, which is two weeks later than normal.
Travel through the park’s South Entrance to Grant, West Thumb and Lake will begin no later than May 24. The road from West Thumb Junction over Craig Pass to Old Faithful will open shortly thereafter.
Wenk had to trim $1.75 million from Yellowstone's planned expenditures. Its neighbor, Grand Teton National Park, had to find $700,000 in savings, most of it from not hiring 180 seasonal workers and closing visitor centers. The Bighorn Canyon National Monument, which straddles the Montana-Wyoming border, will have to trim $176,000 from its spending plan.
Wenk said the delay in opening snow-covered roads could mean about 4,700 fewer visitors traveling through Cooke City. More folks will be turned back at other entrances as plowing is delayed one to two weeks -- an estimated 49,600 total. Hardest hit would be the South Entrance, between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park. The delay there would mean 18,500 fewer visitors. The estimates are based on 2012 visitor numbers.
To come up with the bulk of the savings, Wenk said, a number of vacant positions in Yellowstone would not be filled, saving about $1 million. About 35 fewer seasonal workers, out of a typical year’s total of 435, would be hired, saving about $450,000. Those seasonal employees also may work fewer hours. All parks had to cut nonessential travel. To make up the additional savings, Yellowstone decided to delay its plowing schedule, saving $100,000.
Mary Sue Costello, director of the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce, said it is better to take the hit in the spring than in the fall, when the park is busier. She said some businesses will likely delay their hiring, meaning some seasonal employees may not be as well trained when summer arrives.
Because it is so heavily reliant on tourist traffic for business, Cooke City may be one of the most economically challenged of park border communities. It’s estimated that summer nonresident travelers accounted for a $12.1 million boost to the small town's economy, according to a survey done for the Friends of the Beartooth Highway. The survey showed travelers to the region, including Red Lodge and Cody, accounted for $44.9 million in spending.
“Obviously Yellowstone is vital to our economy,” said Angela Beaumont, general manager of the Pollard Hotel in Red Lodge. “But I feel there are a lot of things people can do here. Access to Yellowstone would be nice, but in early June one never knows whether the road will be open because of the weather anyway.”
Yellowstone's importance to surrounding communities is paramount. In 2011, a federal study estimated that Yellowstone National Park accounts for $332.9 million in spending in surrounding communities and supports more than 5,000 jobs. The Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area was estimated to bring $6.2 million to surrounding communities while Grand Teton National Park brought $436 million to its area of Wyoming.
Lisa Ohlinger, president of the Cooke City Chamber of Commerce, said her group is working with their counterparts in Cody, Red Lodge and even Billings to see if they can find the means to at least plow the road between Cooke City and the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway.
“Hopefully, Montana and Wyoming would understand this is major tourism dollars,” Ohlinger said. “We want to open it as soon as we can” after April 15, which is when the snowmobiling club stops grooming the federal highway.
Wenk said he has spoken to the governors in Montana and Wyoming about plowing, but received no commitments from the states. Wenk said Yellowstone spends about $30,000 a day plowing roads. In 2011, a wet year with heavy snow, the park spent $1.5 million clearing its roads. In 2012, a drier year, it spent $1.14 million. Just to clear the Beartooth Highway cost the Park Service $316,000 in 2011, $178,000 in 2012.
“I would love to have the state take it over,” Wenk said.
Beaumont, of the Pollard Hotel, said she didn’t see why federal government, which bailed out large banks for hundreds of millions of dollars, couldn’t find $316,000 to clear the Beartooth Highway. To have the communities pay the cost may not be smart, she added.
“I’m not quite sure we want to set the precedent.”