RED LODGE — It didn’t surprise Bob Thomas that the Beartooth All-American Road generates an estimated $13.6 million and 176 jobs from nonresident summer visitors to this mountain town and surrounding Carbon County.
“If the highway goes away, this becomes a ghost town,” he said.
Thomas, who runs the town’s Comfort Inn, says the $13.6 million figure is probably low.
The figures come from a recently released study by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana. The results were presented to a small gathering of the Red Lodge Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.
The economic impact was based on a survey of visitors on the Beartooth Highway taken last summer at three locations — Vista Point scenic overlook south of Red Lodge, the Northeast Entrance to Yellowstone National Park near Cooke City and just past the junction of the Beartooth Highway and the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway in Wyoming.
The money generated by the highway link is of special interest since Yellowstone National Park announced recently that it would delay plowing of the road’s Wyoming section for two weeks to meet federal budget sequestration targets. If the highway generates an estimated $113 a day per visitor, spread over two weeks in the three communities, the delay in plowing could mean a loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars to local economies.
Thomas, for one, thinks federal cutbacks will only get worse, so the affected communities ought to come up with an alternative to guarantee that the road is plowed.
“Seventy-five percent of our money is made in four months," he said. "And if you take two weeks away …”
Kim Capron, of the nonprofit Friends of the Beartooth All-American Road, said the communities are considering the possibility of creating a trust fund to pay for the plowing of the road in Wyoming. The cost in the past has ranged from $176,000 to $316,000, depending on how much snow falls in the winter, she said.
“I just don’t know how realistic it is,” Capron said.
The recent survey of visitors to the highway may help the communities decide what they should do. For the communities of Cody, Wyo., Cooke City and Red Lodge, the survey put nonresident spending at $44.96 million in the summer season. Cooke City was the greatest beneficiary, considering how small the community is, reeling in a combined income — money generated by tourist dollars and those dollars turning over in the community — of $13.5 million. Cody, the largest of the three communities, nets an estimated $23 million from Beartooth Highway visitors alone.
One of the biggest surprises for Jake Jorgenson, who conducted the survey, was that the highway is not just a means to travel from point A to point B. More than half of the visitors to the highway said the route over the top of the Beartooth Mountains that climbs to almost 11,000 feet elevation was the object of their visit.
Jorgenson also was happy to finally be able to show that the highway generates income for Cody, Wyo., since the route is often thought of as a Montana road.
“Park County, Wyoming, sees the most economic contribution from the Beartooth Highway ... anywhere around here,” Jorgenson said.
The visitors come to the route to take in the spectacular views of cropped rock cliffs, rolling high-mountain tundra and lakes tucked into pockets of pine trees. They stop to hike, fish, take photographs and often spend one or two nights in the surrounding communities, usually dining out.
Jorgenson said the Beartooth Highway couldn’t be compared to Montana’s other stunning road, the Going to the Sun Highway in Glacier National Park, since that road is inside the park and therefore has a built-in drawing card.
Beartooth Highway visitors come from all 50 states and several European countries. Forty-four percent were first-time visitors. Once they have visited, Jorgenson said, they have a tendency to return or recommend the trip to others.
“This is a destination people come to multiple times,” he said.