The Beartooth Highway
Photos courtesy of KULR-8
Official: Beartooth Highway won't be open soon
RED LODGE - In the back of his mind, Jim Lynch held out hope that the mudslides that spilled onto Beartooth Highway last week might not have damaged the scenic road too badly. But a few minutes into an hour-long inspection flight over the highway Monday, the director of the Montana Department of Transportation knew different.
Twelve slides that followed heavy rains and snow heaped mounds of mud, rocks and, in some places, green trees, onto Highway 212, which snakes to the top of 10,947-foot Beartooth Pass and down, connecting Red Lodge with Cooke City and Yellowstone National Park.
In at least four places, the road has been wiped out or reduced to a strip of undercut asphalt hanging in midair. Elsewhere the road is damaged but still intact. In other spots, the road appeared fine but covered in high piles of debris. "It was probably a little worse than I'd hoped I'd find," said Lynch after touring the area by helicopter. "I was disappointed to see the highway in the shape that it's in."
The road was scheduled to open Friday, the beginning of Memorial Day weekend. That's obviously not going happen, transportation officials said Monday, but it's too early to tell how long the road will remain closed. Planning is beginning immediately to figure out how best to make the repairs.
"We're going to do what we can to get it fixed correctly and get it open as soon as we can," Lynch said. "This will be a priority project." Gov. Brian Schweitzer flew over the site Sunday and vowed Monday to move quickly on repairs.
"Whatever requests need to be made, I'm going to make ASAP," Schweitzer said. "We're not going to wait around. There are a whole lot of people that rely on having that highway open."
Barrett Kaiser, a spokesman for Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., flew over the area with transportation officials. He said his office would work with state officials to find emergency assistance. The offices of Sen. Conrad Burns and Rep. Denny Rehberg also offered their help Monday. Meanwhile, local officials are looking at ways to deal with a closure that could last months.
The highway, built in 1936 and designated a National Scenic Byway in 1989, is a major tourist route in the summer and a crucial link between Red Lodge and Yellowstone. "It's a shock," said Red Lodge Mayor Richard Gessling. "This is the one time of the year that we don't break even. It's the time of year where we actually put bread on the table."
The Red Lodge Chamber of Commerce has fielded several calls from people asking about the slides. Chamber officials will try to keep the summer tourist season alive by marketing alternative routes from Red Lodge to Yellowstone, including Chief Joseph Scenic Highway to the south. "We're hoping people keep their travel plans in place," said Denise Parsons, the chamber director.
Gessling said he's been pleased with the quick response from state officials and Montana's congressional delegation. "You've got to work together when you have a disaster on your hands," he said. Given the steep terrain of the pass, repairs are bound to be tricky.
During and after Monday's helicopter over flight, Lynch talked with transportation officials, including Bruce Barrett, administrator for MDOT's Billings district, which will oversee the repairs. "I don't know if I've seen an easy one yet, Bruce. You?" Lynch asked after flying over about six slide areas. "Not a one," Barrett responded.
Barrett said afterward that repair crews will have to deal with a narrow road, sharp turns, steep embankments and mountain weather. Each slide area will require its own type of repair, whether it's a retaining wall, culverts or other options, he said. Some places will need extensive work, especially those where the water and muck washed out the road's foundation.
Surveying work will likely be necessary, which can be difficult on steep slopes, and repairs also will require permits from the national forest, which owns portions of the land. "It'll be a lot of work," said Barrett, who said that in 20 years he hasn't seen such extensive damage to the highway.
Transportation officials hope to have a more complete assessment of the damage and needed repairs later in the week. Meetings with local and state officials will be held in the coming weeks to discuss what happens next. The project quickly moved to the top of this summer's to-do list. Transportation officials are mindful of the economic importance of the highway as well as the challenges it poses when repairs are needed.
"We need to be deliberate and cautious," Barrett said. "We'll go as fast as we can."