Deal reached on Martin's Cove lease to LDS church

Associated Press/September 16, 2003

Cheyeene, Wyo. -- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has agreed to a 25-year lease of Martin's Cove, considered by Mormons to be hallowed ground, from the Bureau of Land Management, a spokeswoman for Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., said Tuesday.

Martin's Cove is a pocket of prairie encircled by pink granite cliffs in central Wyoming. A company of Mormon pioneers, mostly poor European converts, were trapped there in 1856 by an early winter snowstorm as they neared the end of their 1,300-mile trek to Utah.

Too poor to buy livestock to haul wagons, they were pulling handcarts piled with children and possessions. They sought shelter in the cove, where many died. Rescuers, sent from Salt Lake City, wrapped the dead in blankets and buried them under piles of rock. As many as 150 are believed to have either starved or frozen to death.

The Mormon church bought land nearby and built a museum to commemorate the tragedy. But the church has been unsucessful in persuading Congress to sell the cove itself, in part of because of fears by non-Mormons that the secular history of the area would be lost with church ownership. Opponents note that the California, Oregon and Pony Express trails are all within a mile of Martin's Cove.

Thomas introduced the lease proposal Tuesday in an amendment to an appropriations bill that was nearing a vote. A spokeswoman for Thomas said federal leases require congressional approval.

''The church was looking for us to sell it to them, and then they were looking for a 99-year lease, and this is where we are now,'' Thomas spokeswoman Carrie Sloan said.

She did not have additional information about the lease. A BLM spokeswoman in Cheyenne, Cindy Wertz, said no one with the BLM in Wyoming was aware of the lease agreement. A call to Mormon church officials was not returned.

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