By Bella Butler EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – Part of working in emergency planning is dealing with hypotheticals—considering the perfect storms of cataclysmic disasters that aren’t likely to ever happen. But with American society crippled by an unanticipated pandemic, it’s become evident that a worst-case scenario could be lurking just around the corner.
The destination town of Big Sky, a paradisal escape for many, lacks an adequate plan for its residents’ own emergency escape, according to community members. Montana Highway 64, which intersects with U.S. Highway 191, offers a two-lane passage that exits and enters Big Sky and dead ends to the public at Moonlight Basin, and a group of community members recently sent a letter of concern to Gov. Steve Bullock.
That doesn’t mean there’s no plan, it just isn’t clear what Big Sky residents should do in the face of a wildfire, earthquake or any other disaster should it block egress on U.S. 191. The Gallatin County Emergency Plan does not present explicit options for egress but rather appoints the county sheriff, currently Brian Gootkin, to make the call on evacuation routes during an emergency.
“I think with the current [pandemic] situation, people are beginning to see the value in preparing for emergencies,” said Gallatin County Commission Chair Don Seifert. The consensus answer to the question of are we prepared leans toward no, and a new question stands: what entity will take the initiative to change that?
The Big Sky Owners Association, the first and largest owner’s association in Big Sky with 2,700 members, raised evacuation concerns in 2019 when they charged their advisory committee with researching the egress protocol for the Big Sky area. After pouring over 600-plus pages of county emergency management plans, John Leeper, chair of the advisory committee, came to the conclusion that Big Sky had not been adequately considered in Gallatin or Madison County’s plans.
On April 26, Leeper and the advisory committee sent a letter to Gov. Bullock detailing the issue at hand and requesting a meeting to address their concerns.
A town bisected by county lines, Big Sky is unique in that it is an unincorporated census-designated place that covers ground in both Gallatin County and Madison County. According to the BSOA’s letter to the governor, the absence of local governance and the county border have left the mountain town utopia at the whim of a generalized county protocol.
“There is no precedent or authorized legal structure for the two counties to jointly create and/or administer a single, coordinated evacuation plan for our community,” the letter reads.
Currently, MT 64 is the one-way-in, one-way-out option for public travel in Big Sky. Turning their heads to the other option, Jack Creek Road, Leeper and BSOA have now asked what the protocol is should the main route, MT 64, be obstructed during an emergency.
Suppose an earthquake instigates a rockslide just downstream of the West Fork and it plugs the river up, Leeper suggested, painting the picture of what he calls the “worst-case scenario.” The water quickly floods, covering up U.S. 191 until the highway and primary egress option is impassable. The earthquake is serious enough that it broke propane lines and high-tension electrical wiring, starting a fire.
Based on traffic counts and other community metrics, Leeper estimated that the occupancy of Big Sky can range from 10,000-20,000 people during peak seasons, including residents and visitors. Jammed between a flood/fire and a dead end, where would this horde of evacuees turn?
The answer may be at the end of MT 64, where the pavement turns to dirt and a gate marks the entrance to Jack Creek Road, a private Moonlight Basin asset. “It’s the elephant in the room that the only other way out of Big Sky is going to be through Jack Creek,” said Eric Ossorio, BSOA Chairman.
In the mid-70s, MT 64 was built as the first phase of a Federal-aid Primary Highway System route that sought to connect U.S. 191 with U.S. Highway 287 through the planned arterial link. The passage was never completed and due to a 1991 act of Congress, the Federal-aid Primary Highway System and associated funding were terminated. Moonlight Basin began managing the road and made it private in 1992.
Kevin Germain, Vice President of Moonlight Basin, says Moonlight would allow the private Jack Creek Road to be used for evacuation if needed, but there is no formal written agreement that ensures this permission. While this is a concern held by Leeper, Ossorio and other members of the BSOA, Germain said it’s not a worry shared by Moonlight. The bigger issue, he said, is just beyond the western Jack Creek gate.
From Ennis, the winding 3-4 miles stretch immediately approaching the gate is in stark juxtaposition to the smooth and wide private gravel road. Many corners on the portion of the road in question are either blind or low-visibility corners, and sections of the creek-side road are hardly wide enough for a single vehicle to cross. This section of the road is managed by Madison County.
Madison County Commissioner Jim Hart and Gallatin County Commissioner Don Seifert, along with Germain, Leeper, Ossorio and Gootkin were all in agreement that improvements could be made to that section of the road, and most said that the biggest issue it poses is in an emergency evacuation.
Namely, they pointed to the improbability of the section effectively evacuating thousands of people traveling west while also moving emergency response vehicles through in the opposite direction to provide support at the scene of the hazard. The road, in its current condition, can only reasonably function as a one-way road under that circumstance, they said. The problem, Hart contended, is funding.
“Regardless of what people might say about how much taxes are paid … from the Big Sky folks to Madison County, which we appreciate of course, we can’t just suddenly come up with $20 million dollars to make improvements to that road,” Hart said.
In 2018 Madison County, which includes Big Sky Resort, Spanish Peaks Mountain Club, the Yellowstone Club and Moonlight Basin, collected the greatest amount of per-capita property taxes in the state at $15,794, according to a report updated in May 2020 by the Montana Legislature’s Tax Study Committee. The same study revealed that for more than 37 percent of Montana’s 56 counties, comparable figures were under $500 per capita.
“It’s no secret that the folks in the Madison County portion of Big Sky feel like they do not get a return on their property taxes,” Germain said, adding that the lack of work done on the county’s hazardous portion of the Jack Creek Road is a fair example.
“It’s inaccurate that [tax contributions] are not reciprocated,” Hart said in response to the anecdotal claim. “I refuse to listen to somebody who argues that point … that’s not a viable argument.”
Hart said that safety improvements are on the horizon, but such a project will take more time. He also noted that he needs to consider the potential negative impact construction debris could have on Jack Creek and the surrounding environment as well as the residents and property owners along the road. Germain isn’t convinced the county will follow through. “Until work starts getting done, I just won’t believe it,” he said.
Madison County has worked bridges in that stretch but two still require improvements, pending the approval of a Treasure State Endowment Grant for the project, according to Hart.
“We would sure like to see the county fix their portion of the road before there’s any sort of formal agreement,” said Germain, who has represented Moonlight in related conversations with the county for a decade.
Hart said that a formal agreement on the egress matter would rest more heavily on the shoulders of Moonlight Basin, being that their managed portion of the road is private and the county section is public. Sei
fert of Gallatin County agreed that more focused attention to the issue and the possible coordination of a more specific agreement would likely be beneficial. He said Gallatin County would support and encourage a more viable egress option for the split-county community, but also said the ball is in Madison County’s court.
While the Jack Creek egress option bears its own challenges, Sheriff Gootkin of Gallatin County said that even when it’s accessible the standard egress route using MT 64 to connect with U.S. 191 isn’t perfect either. “You have one vehicle accident, and next thing you know everybody is trapped, nobody can move,” he said.
Gootkin, who according to the functioning Gallatin County Emergency Management Plan would be charged with choosing an evacuation option, said there are “… so many opportunities for [current egress options] to be bad” that it would be safest, if at all possible, to keep everyone in a general area like a community park.
According to Gootkin, Patrick Lonergan, the Gallatin County Chief of Emergency Management and Fire, is in agreement on this point. Lonergan did not respond to EBS’s multiple requests for comment.
Gootkin said decisions would have to be made on an ad hoc basis and would largely depend on the nature and immediacy of the emergency. Trend forecasts for southwest Montana this summer suggest abnormally dry and hot conditions, two key ingredients to blazing seasonal wildfires with which the country is becoming more and more familiar.
On June 14, a small wildfire burned through a chunk of forest approximately 3 miles south of the U.S. 191 and MT 64 junction, and on March 31, a 6.5 magnitude earthquake in Challis, Idaho rattled Big Sky. These recent events serve as a reminder that disaster and potential emergencies are possible, and with the global pandemic shining a spotlight on the importance of taking preventative rather than reactive measures to cope with community crisis, Big Sky’s egress dilemma is a rising priority.