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for people who care about the West

Church aims to purchase public land



A national historic site along the Oregon Trail could end up in the hands of private owners. At the request of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, congressional delegates from Wyoming and Utah are drafting legislation permitting the sale of a several-hundred-acre parcel of land in central Wyoming to the LDS church.

In 1856, nearly 200 Mormon pioneers pulling handcarts perished where the site now is when they were stranded by early snowfall. Followers of the Mormon faith believe the area in remote central Wyoming, known as Martin's Cove, is sacred land. "It's a place we can go to reflect on the ultimate sacrifice and legacy of our forebears," says stake president Lloyd Larsen, who oversees the LDS church in Riverton, Wyo. "Martin's Cove and the events are much more relevant to the Church than to anyone else."

For several years, the Bureau of Land Management and the Mormon Church have tried to work out a land swap. The Church owns another historical site near Martin's Cove that interests the BLM, but has refused to trade the land. Jack Kelly, manager of the BLM's Lander, Wyo., field office says the Church wasn't able to come up with any other land that measures up to Martin's Cove in historical value. "Everyone knew that it was a high hurdle for them to overcome," he says.

If the proposed legislation is successful, it will mark the first time that a registered national historic site is sold into private ownership. Gaynell Park, a rancher who owns land next to Martin's Cove, is worried that the sale "could open up Pandora's box to anyone and everyone who wants a piece of the trail," she says.

Andy Baldwin, attorney for the Northern Arapaho Tribe, says tribes are paying close attention. What limited protection there is of Native American history on this land goes away with the sale, says Baldwin. But if the Mormon Church can purchase a public site it considers sacred, tribes may be able to follow suit. Says Baldwin, "In the bigger picture, it could be a good thing, if tribes could get equal treatment."