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Wolf Creek Pass State Road 35 between Francis and Hannah high in the Uinta Mountains supposedly closed for the winter back on Dec. 4. State parks crews even groomed snow to convert it into a playground for snowmobiles and cross-country skiing, as they do every year.
But then the Utah Department of Transportation did something that makes snowmobilers and skiers worry the agency is moving toward keeping such high-mountain highways open year-round without considering what it does to winter recreation perhaps because of political pressure from year-round residents.
UDOT plowed the road without warning last Friday.
Some snowmobilers who had spent the night in the mountains were stranded because they could not snowmobile back out on bare pavement. Others arrived in hopes of snowmobiling or skiing on the road only to find it plowed. The Utah Snowmobile Association called state parks officials and UDOT to complain.
UDOT spokesman John Gleason confirms the road was plowed after the agency was asked by Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, on behalf of constituents in the area to "relook at clearing the road due to the low snowfall" there.
Resident concerns • Van Tassell told The Tribune he was passing on concerns of residents of Hannah and Tabiona, who face an extra 100 miles of travel once the road closes. He said an early storm often closes the road, but then little more snow comes for weeks so he raised questions of whether the road could remain open longer after the first storm for those residents.
Gleason said because little snow had fallen during most of December, "people were actually trying to drive the road, so it became a safety concern. We determined the road could be cleared with a minimal effort."
But the road was never technically reopened because of high winds and a snowstorm that came shortly after the plowing on Friday night. With more storms expected this week, Gleason said it is unlikely that crews will plow again until spring.
Snowmobiler worries • What worries snowmobilers and skiers is the incident comes as UDOT is conducting a $200,000 study to figure out how much it would cost to keep open year-round its eight high-mountain highways that currently close during winter, including Wolf Creek Pass.
"This situation would indicate that they've already made up their minds before the study was even started," complained Dave Hanscom, a cross-country skier, in an email to The Tribune.
Jeff Harris, UDOT planning director, said that is not the case.
"Statutorily, UDOT is responsible for road users, that's been traditionally defined as the vehicular travelling public," Harris said. "At the same time, we're trying to understand if there would be significant impacts to the recreation community or any other community from opening the roads."
He said the study, due for completion next spring, is meant simply to figure out how much it would cost for extra manpower and equipment to plow the roads year-round. He said it was not designed to talk at length to snowmobilers and skiers at this point.
But he said if the study finds that costs are reasonable to open some of the roads all winter, then more studies are likely to look more in-depth at the effects on winter sports.
Economics • Jeffery Eddings, president of the Utah Snowmobile Association, said winter sports add a lot to some rural economies and that should be weighed carefully.
"We buy a lot of fuel. We stop to eat. A lot of people spend the night in lodging," he said. " In the winter, it's a harder time for those businesses because you don't have the high volume of summer recreation, so I think they depend on snowmobilers to visit their establishments."
Eddings said a meeting with state parks and UDOT officials is planned in the next couple of weeks to has out the issue. Because of poor communication over the Wolf Creek Pass closure and worries caused by it,Gleason said, "We are working with state parks to establish a protocol on how we communicate these road closures for roads that have secondary purposes."
Fred Hays, director of state parks, said the agency is "really concerned" about the issue.
"Plowing the roads will have a huge economic impact on riders in Utah and tourists who come here to ride," Hayes said. "There would likely be fewer people buying snowmobiles and less people traveling to ride and making stops at gas stations and restaurants on the way there or the way home."
Besides Wolf Creek pass, the other seven state highway sections that close for winter and are included in the study are: SR39, the Monte Cristo Highway; SR-65, East Canyon; SR-92, American Fork Canyon/Alpine Loop; SR-148, Cedar Breaks; SR-150 the Mirror Lake Highway; SR-153, Mt. Holly Junction Road; and Guardsman Pass, SR-224/190.
Brett Prettyman contributed to this report.
Eight state highway that close for winter, for now:
• Wolf Creek Pass, SR-35 from Francis to Hannah.
• Monte Cristo Highway, SR-39 from Huntsville to Woodruff.
• East Canyon, SR-65.
• American Fork Canyon/Alpine Loop, SR-92.
• Cedar Breaks, SR-148.
• Mirror Lake Highway, SR-150.
• Mt. Holly Junction Road, SR-153.
• Guardsman Pass, SR-224/190.
By the numbers
30,000-plus • Estimated number of snowmobilers in Utah
1,200 • Miles of trails groomed by state parks crews
Source: Utah state parks