CODY, Wyo. - They razed the best patch of angelica.
The nondescript low forb is a favored
food for grizzly bears along the highway corridor from Cody to the
west entrance to Yellowstone National Park. The North Fork Highway,
as U.S. 14-16-20 is called, was once described by Theodore
Roosevelt as one of the most scenic stretches of highway in the
It carries, on average, 1,600
tourists a day to the park, as it ribbons through the North Fork
River Valley - home to the densest populations of grizzlies and to
the most varied wildlife habitat in the Yellowstone
When ecologist Chuck Neal looks at the
upper end of the corridor today, he sees bare ground and fill dirt
where angelica used to be. It's all part of the first phase of the
Wyoming Department of Transportation's $50 million plan to widen
and straighten 27.5 miles of the highway through the Shoshone
National Forest on its way to Yellowstone.
frustrated by demands that the road department cough up large sums
to compensate for paving over wildlife habitat, the state board
that doles out highway funds voted in November to cancel more work
on the highway.
The move delighted critics like
Neal, but stunned tourism boosters.
sides are mobilizing. Chamber of commerce backers, supported by the
governor, are applying political leverage to push the rebuilding
through. Foes of the project, while certain that politics will
revive the project, see the current intermission as a chance to
make it right.
"This is our last, desperate hope
of adding some sanity to this project," says Steve Thomas of the
Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
behind the road could have set out to rebuild the highway and
roadside campgrounds in a way that would establish a benchmark for
roadwork in sensitive landscapes across the American West, Thomas
says. Instead, the road has been designed for tourists driving at
50 mph. Bears get little consideration, he
"It's just sad, because it could have
really worked well," laments Jane Roybal, a biologist with the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service. She had pushed unsuccessfully for
provisions to reduce run-ins between grizzly bears and people along
the highway. "We could have seen something besides the devastation
After Wyoming's Transportation
Commission stopped the reconstruction, Cody's chamber of commerce
held a crisis meeting. The assemblage quickly rejected two options:
accepting cancellation of the road and backing a scaled-down
version. They went for a third choice: "We've got to turn them
around," said Bud Webster, a Cody car dealer. "Tourism is too
important to let a bunch of "againsters' sabotage this project."
Built in the 1930s for the lighter traffic of
the time, the highway is disintegrating under monster tour buses
and campers. Accident rates are up because the old road cannot
satisfy motorists who are used to freeway speeds, boosters such as
Yet the highway corridor is,
one said, Cody's economic lifeline.
sees a different kind of lifeline. Lean and intense, Neal is
retired from the U.S. Department of Interior, where he spent years
studying grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region. He describes the
valley as the spinal column of millions of acres of national forest
and federal wilderness that sweep all around
He says the Forest Service and other agencies
that consented to the construction "betrayed the public trust."
It's difficult to overstate the value of the
North Fork to wildlife, state and federal biologists say. The river
valley provides a mosaic of habitats that supports populations of
elk, deer, bighorn sheep, moose and other wildlife. It shelters
wintering grounds and wetlands and is one of the first spots to
green up with the spring forbs and grasses that give wildlife the
kick of a high-energy bar.
But on summer days,
the valley is also thick with people on the highway and in the
Forest Service's 11 roadside campgrounds. Steep slopes leave little
room between the valley's human and wild users. Campgrounds draw
grizzlies, which often have to be moved or killed in the name of
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
recorded 107 bear-human conflicts along the North Fork from 1982 to
1995. In that same period, biologists trapped and moved nine
grizzlies and eliminated another 10, either by killing them or
shipping them to zoos.
"That has been a major,
major conflict site in the last 10 years," says Dave Moody, who
oversees predators for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. "The
North Fork (of the Shoshone River), without a doubt, poses the
highest threat of loss to grizzly bears' in
State engineers first proposed
reconstruction of the North Fork Highway in the early 1980s, but
dropped the idea after finding a tangle of environmental strings
attached. They resurrected the plan in 1989, citing accident rates
on the shoulderless highway up to three times the norm for roads in
Wyoming. When it came time to firm up plans, the Forest Service
added renovations of its aging roadside campgrounds to the
discussion. State and federal wildlife biologists raised another
The Forest Service immediately
cried in local newspapers that the state Game and Fish Department
and federal Fish and Wildlife Service were trying to close the
North Fork to camping. At that time Barry Davis, then the Shoshone
National Forest supervisor, announced that campgrounds would be
moved only over his dead body.
"What got me was
the way they totally misrepresented where we were coming from," the
Game and Fish Department's Moody says. "We were branded as being
Both the Forest Service and state
highway officials say they did plenty for wildlife. They shrank the
highway shoulders from eight to six feet and narrowed "clear zones'
on either side. A few bridges will be higher so grizzlies can walk
underneath them to avoid collisions. The campgrounds will
incorporate "bear-friendly" measures such as fences to detour
grizzlies around tents.
With that, Forest Service
Regional Forester Elizabeth Estill last June signed off on the
highway, on the condition that highway builders offset the loss of
roughly 260 acres of big-game habitat the wider road will pave.
That was the final sticking point.
When it came
to replacing the lost big-game habitat, highway engineers proposed
prescribed burning and selective logging to open new meadows. But
state biologists insisted that road builders buy conservation
easements that would maintain nearby private land as open
The highway department
"We're not against it, but we don't want
this kind of expense to preclude our work in the future," said Bob
Bonds, the environmental coordinator for the
Late last year, Shoshone National Forest
Supervisor Rebecca Aus threatened to stop work on the highway until
the state road officials presented an acceptable plan to replace
newly blacktopped habitat. About the same time, the Forest Service
and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found that workers constructing
the first segment of road (which will be completed) had
inadvertently blasted tons of rock into the
Clean up your act, the agencies
Forget it altogether, the state highway
"The more we heard about what
was happening and what we were dealing with, the more it just made
sense to take our money elsewhere," says Transportation Commission
member Charles Brown. "It's not a scare tactic, but it is meant to
send a message."
To Chuck Neal, it's a defense
worthy of O.J. Simpson: Camouflage your guilt by attacking your
critics. The highway cheerleaders, as he views it, have thrown out
a $50 million road to dodge a few hundred thousand dollars' worth
of wildlife assistance.
"(Highway builders) have
a standard design," biologist Roybal says. "Getting them to sway
from that for environmental reasons is almost impossible."
Following the emergency chamber of commerce
meeting, members mobilized to deal with what a recent newsletter
called the "Cody-Yellowstone Highway Reconstruction Crisis." The
chamber said it wants to "instill a sense of fiscal responsibility"
in the wildlife mitigation, which to skeptics sounded a lot like
diluting the mitigation to please the state highway
Forest Service Supervisor Aus said she
believes the Forest Service's prior approval of the highway before
any mitigation was cemented and before she came to Cody "was, in
retrospect, a rather poor decision."
that the North Fork Highway passes into Yellowstone National Park,
where the federal government is reworking its road. The in-park
work has turned out to be an engineer's dream: It drew very little
criticism, no citizen appeals and no lawsuits. It's now leagues
ahead of the state project - so far ahead, in fact, that it will
almost surely be done years sooner and at a much lower
For more information or to voice opinions
on the North Fork Highway reconstruction, contact: Shoshone
National Forest, 808 Meadow Lane, Cody, WY 82414-4516
(307/527-6241); U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4000 Morrie Ave.,
Cheyenne, WY 82001 (307/772-2374); or Wyoming Department of
Transportation, P.O. Box 1708, Cheyenne, WY 82003-1708
The writer lives in