Yellowstone National Park Officials Want Someone Else To Tend To Beartooth Highway

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One of the country's most scenic drives, the Beartooth Highway can gobble up maintenance dollars. Patrick Cone photo.

Hands down, the most scenic approach to Yellowstone National Park is the Beartooth Highway, a narrow ribbon of road that climbs to nearly 11,000 feet between Red Lodge, Montana, and the park's northeast entrance. And then, even as the road peaks out at 10,947 feet, you still have peaks to look up to.

The craggy views of the Absaroka and Beartooth mountains, with their icefields and glaciers and wildflower strewn meadows, that you enjoy along the 68-mile drive to Yellowstone rightfully have earned the route distinction as a National Scenic Byways All-American Road. Your passengers get the best of these views, as you're too busy keeping your eyes on the road as it switchbacks up in elevation while just beyond the road's shoulders the landscape plunges far, and steeply, away in places.

Roaming as it does at nearly 11,000 feet in the Rockies, weaving into both Montana and Wyoming, it's not hard to imagine that the Beartooth Highway encounters some serious maintenance problems. They involve clearing away mountains of snow to open the road in time for summer travel season, repairing crumbling pavement and potholes, and other problems that tend to befall high-elevation, mountainous routes, such as the historic mudslides that roared across the highway in 2005.

While the National Park Service long has tended to this maintenance, the days when Yellowstone National Park could afford to handle it seem to be drawing to a close. The budget sequester that sliced 5 percent from the park's budget a year ago made that clear. And now Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk is making the rounds of state government offices in search of deeper pockets to serve as the highway's caretaker.

“The work we do on the Beartooth Highway will always be secondary to the work we do in the park,” the superintendent told the Wyoming Transportation Commission the other week while hoping the state would take maintenance control of its 35 miles of the highway. “I’m telling you it can’t be our highest priority.”

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Turnoffs from the Beartooth Highway reveal idyllic settings. Patrick Cone photo.

According to a story on yellowstonegate.com, neither Montana nor Wyoming officials are anxious to take over maintenance. Just dealing with issues on Wyoming sections of the Beartooth Highway would cost “many tens of millions of dollars,” estimated Wyoming Department of Transportation Chief Engineer Del McOmie, who added in his presentation to the Transportation Commission that annual maintenance alone could approach half-a-million dollars.

In short, this scenic national treasure is valued by the two states and the National Park Service...but apparently not enough to justify a budget line for its upkeep.

Comments

My cousin said this was his favorite road in the USA bar none on board his Harley.

The fact that the Park Service maintains this highway in the first place has always puzzled me. Does anyone know how this came about to begin with?

I agree with lckt13's cousin: the Beartooth is one of the best, if not the best, road in the US. I hope its maintenance issues get worked out somehow. This spectacular drive needs to be kept up for all of us to enjoy.

Celbert, here's a link to some very interesting reading.

http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/publicroads/06jul/03.cfm

Ever since it was pushed through Congress as a pork barrel present to Montana merchants in the Red Lodge and Billings areas, it has been an albatross around the neck of Yellowstone. Arguments over who should fund its maintenance have been going on forever and a half - and will probably continue forever. Neither the states of Montana nor Wyoming wanted the bill, so they convinced Congress to hang it on Yellowstone. And as usual, they forgot one little detail -- how would the Park Service pay for it?

There is an old saying - "If you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail"

For you Lee, everything seems to look like "pork barrel present(s)".

Somehow, I don't think you want to get the feds out of the road building business and those roads have to be built somewhere. Yes, someone will benefit, that's the whole purpose of building the road in the first place.

Please tell us why this road is unnecessary and undesirable, I number of people here would seem to disagree.

Here is some interesting history:

http://www.cflhd.gov/projects/archive/wy/beartooth/routeHistory.cfm

One interesting tidbit (according to this synopsis) is that while the enabling "Park Approach Act" was fathered by a Montana Senator, the act as he proposed it was not specific to Beartooth but was in fact aimed at improving access to National Parks in general.

I didn't say the road was unnecessary or undesireable. I just questioned why Yellowstone is saddled with maintaining it. Isn't one of the basic tenants of conservatism that people who benefit from a program should pay for it?


I didn't say the road was unnecessary or undesireable.


But you did call it pork - which seems to me is the definition of unnecessary or undesireable.


Isn't one of the basic tenants of conservatism that people who benefit from a program should pay for it?


Isn't Yellowstone and its visitors the primary beneficiaries?

Lee and ecbuck, very nice web links. It would seem that making it a Scenic Highway like Blue Ridge Parkway would be one way to put maintainance totally on the Federal level but I can understand many land owners will oppose. With a National Park and two states,it would be hard to get them to agree to anything mutually for appropriation of $$ for maintaining this road. If the Park had total say they would let it close for a strecth every winter but the towns up there need it to get in and out. Interesting.

One has to scratch one's head as to how this could have been built in the first place without some understanding of who was responsible for maintaining it.

Assuming this is road worth maintianing open - and I would think those that support Yellowstone would agree to that, I think a reasonable solution would be for the Feds to upgrade the road to State standards and turn over ownership to the states for maintenance, perhaps with some ongoing federal assistance. It appears from my linked article the states would be willing to accept that solution.

The Beartooth Highway is truly spectacular. Have been on it twice now, pretty special. If I read things correctly, the states own the road, the issue is funding to maintain it. As two states and a National Park are involved, I suppose it becomes a political issue, and as park funding has been cut, the Superintendent of Yellowstone has reopened the discussion. I for one am not sure upgrading the road to federal/state highway standards is the solution, but some mutual aid agreement between the states and the federal government for maintenance seems reasonable. It is interesting to note how some are opposed to any federal interference in local affairs, but issues like this, well, they immediately turn to the feds for the assistance needed.

"One has to scratch one's head as to how this could have been built in the first place without some understanding of who was responsible for maintaining it."

100% agreement.

David, Beartooth Highway does close each winter. The towns of Cooke City and Silver Gate are accessed through the park. There's no dispute over that. But from Cooke City vicinity on east to Red Lodge, the road is closed until it can be reopened in a marathon snow removal campaign every spring.


It is interesting to note how some are opposed to any federal interference in local affairs, but issues like this, well, they immediately turn to the feds for the assistance needed.


This isn't a "local affair". The problem was created when the feds passed the Park Approach Act and built the road to improve access to a National Park.