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Destination: Montana

Bearly Spring

An endangered Beartooth road winds through a world sculpted by snow and ice

May 04, 1997|MICHAEL MILSTEIN | Milstein is a Cody, Wyo., freelance writer

BEARTOOTH MOUNTAINS, Mont. — Summer comes late to Top of the World.

It's mid-June, and we are driving through a canyon of snow with walls that dwarf our compact car, blocking views of everything but a slice of blue sky above. Each wall exposes horizontal layers--like the geological layers in a canyon--marking storm upon winter storm that dropped enough snow to bury the few brave spruce trees that cling to these high slopes. We can traverse this snowbound realm only because snowplows chewed their way over our route a few weeks earlier.

As we exit the titanic snowdrifts, the parallel walls fall away, and suddenly we can see 360 degrees in all directions. It's like sitting in the crow's nest of a wayward ship, as the road ahead snakes into a rough, unending sea of white-capped mountain peaks.

Heaven, I think to myself, must not be far above.

Few other roads cover the kind of ground that the Beartooth Highway does in its 69 miles, going from the northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park, past the settlement called Top of the World (elevation 9,200 feet), to the understated Montana town of Red Lodge about halfway between Yellowstone and Billings. The road scales the Beartooth Mountains to nearly 11,000 feet, swerving eastward, back and forth over the Montana-Wyoming state line, past glacier-carved granite and mirror-like lakes that in midsummer are embraced by meadows of wildflowers. Mountain goats tiptoe along precipices in view of the highway--a narrow corridor of civilization jutting through massive parcels of federally protected wilderness.

But the vagaries of civilization are now catching up with the spectacular route officially known as U.S. Highway 212.

In short, nobody wants it.

Or, perhaps more accurately, nobody wants to pay for it.

Although the Beartooth Highway lies outside Yellowstone Park, park crews have long cleared snow off most of the road and patched its weather-worn pavement each summer because highway departments in Wyoming and Montana would not take on the job. Montana workers care for the 24 eastern-most miles in Montana, but highway departments in both states have otherwise declined to take on the job. With a slim budget, Yellowstone managers now say they can no longer afford the work, either.

"It's a very difficult position we find ourselves in," Yellowstone Park Supt. Michael Finley explained. "People love that road. But our primary obligation is to the park, and we just cannot spread our employees any thinner than they are."

Closed all winter, the highway typically opens for the season on Memorial Day weekend (this year May 24-25). Autumn snows shut it down in September or October. If there were no snowplows to cut through the deep drifts still blanketing the highway when summer rolls around, the popular route might not open until late summer, if at all. Even last year, the road opened three weeks late because there was no money to pay park snow-clearing crews for overtime work.

Yellowstone National Park managers plan to plow and maintain the road, at an annual cost of about $200,000, through this summer. But, as of this writing, they will not commit to anything beyond, leaving the highway's fate hinging on a request by Wyoming and Montana officials for special funding from Congress.

*

It was into this bureaucratic twilight zone that my wife, Sue, and I drove from our home in Cody, Wyo., about two hours away, early last summer to see what the public might miss. We did not find a cure for what ails the highway, but in two days of driving (with a night spent camping at Beartooth Lake), we did find spectacular high country populated with wildlife and trimmed by waterfalls that cries out for an audience around every twist and turn.

We started at Cooke City, Mont., a small mountain community and former mining town now stocked with restaurants, motels and shops just outside the northeast entrance of Yellowstone Park. Cooke City flourishes during the height of summer, quiets down in fall and fills with snowmobilers in winter. Almost every summer passersby either arrive or depart by way of the Beartooth Highway, so the road's survival is paramount here. It's about as big a deal as the gold mine proposed for the high peaks just north of town. We came to this conclusion while chewing over the issue, and tart sourdough pancakes, at Joan and Bill's Family Restaurant. The proposed mine drew enough attention that President Clinton last year pledged $65 million in federal funds to pay the mining company to abandon the project.

"We've got to protect this place," advised Ralph Glidden, a mine opponent who runs the Cooke City Store, a mercantile shop full of local crafts, trinkets and camping provisions. "We need to save some places that are too special to exploit."

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