Utah Department of Transportation ("UDOT") surprised residents and recreators last Friday, Jan. 3, when it plowed the stretch of S.R. 35 east of Francis known as Wolf Creek Pass.
The road is generally closed to traffic during the winter and is then used by snowmobilers. This year, the road had been closed to automobiles since the beginning of December. In fact, the road was groomed as recently as Monday, Dec. 30 -- only four days before it was then plowed and salted.
The decision to plow the road was not announced ahead of time and reportedly caught many off-guard. According to Deseret News, at least one group of snowmobilers were stranded after the plowing, after their only return route was swept away. State Rep. Kraig Powell said that, since the plowing, he has heard this week from several constituents "that are upset, because it had been groomed for snowmobiling."
Tom Clyde, who lives "right there at the foot of the pass," confirmed that there is not any room for snowmobiles when the road is plowed.
"The road is cut into the side slope such that there isn't really anyplace they could ride on the side without being sideways," he said.
Maintenance of Wolf Creek Pass is split between a couple of agencies that were not communicating. UDOT performs plowing and other maintenance tasks in non-winter months but Utah State Parks grooms and maintains the roadway in winter.
UDOT was contacted by State Sen. Kevin Van Tassell prior to the plowing, who asked UDOT to look at whether the road could be plowed. Van Tassell represents residents east of Wolf Creek Pass for whom plowing could have a positive impact on travel time when heading west.
UDOT spokesperson John Gleason said that there was "almost no snowfall in that area for the month of December" and that there was "such a low snowpack that people were actually trying to drive on it." He described the circumstances as "unchartered territory."
"We evaluated it, saw the snow wasn't very deep," Gleason said.
Even after being plowed, however, the road was never actually re-opened. A storm rolled in soon after the plowing, and the road will likely remain closed until spring.
While future plowing isn't likely, neither UDOT nor Utah State Parks would confirm that it will not occur. "No plans to do any additional work this season," Gleason said. "Snow removal is unlikely until spring," said Eugene Swalberg, spokesperson for Utah State Parks.
Will the public be given advance notice in the future if winter plowing is scheduled? "We're aware of some issues," Gleason said, and "our communications all around should have been better."
"Between agencies, we're on firmer ground," Swalberg said.
UDOT is currently conducting a study of the feasibility and cost of keeping several mountain roads, including Wolf Creek Pass, open during the winter.