Mormons win Martin’s Cove

  Culminating a five-year effort, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has gained control of Martin’s Cove — 940 acres of federal land — where several dozen Mormon immigrants died in a blizzard in 1856.

The church considers the site, southwest of Casper, Wyo., sacred and sought to buy it (HCN, 9/30/02: This land holds a story the church won't tell). But opposition from most of Wyoming’s congressional delegation caused a change in tactics. Instead, Wyoming Sen. Craig Thomas, R, slipped a lease deal into a massive energy and water appropriations bill that Congress passed Nov. 18.

The lease, with the Bureau of Land Management, has terms nearly as favorable as a sale. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the lease runs for 25 years, and the church has the right to renew it in perpetuity. The lease will allow additional improvements to attract tourists.

Thousands of Mormons visit the site each year to walk a remnant of the historic Mormon trail that stretched to Salt Lake City. The church runs a visitors’ center on an adjacent ranch, and interpretive signs mention the importance of faith. The lease rate hasn’t been determined, but the church can deduct some money, in return for providing public access across a piece of church land.

Thomas says the lease will “help inform and educate the public” to the struggles of Western pioneers. Opponents say it sets a bad precedent by converting public land to religious purposes. Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State calls it a “sweetheart deal.”