LDS Church, BLM, ACLU Settle Martin's Cove Lawsuit

Associated Press/May 17, 2006

Cheyenne, Wyoming An agreement has been reached on the management of Martin's Cove, a stretch of federal land where Mormon handcart pioneers died in a blizzard 150 years ago.

The Bureau of Land Management announced the agreement between the agency, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the American Civil Liberties Union Wednesday afternoon.

The settlement calls for the BLM and the church to use separate and distinct signs to clearly identify public land and public access.

Last year, four Wyoming residents filed a lawsuit arguing that the BLM should not have entered a 25-year lease with the Mormon church to manage the site, west of Casper. The lawsuit claimed that Mormon tour guides at Martin's Cove proselytized to visitors.

Attorneys for the BLM and the church have denied those charges.

Megan Hayes, the Laramie attorney who filed the federal lawsuit, said the agreement ensures that people can have access to public lands without having to go through the church visitor center area that is nearby.

"I think all the parties are satisfied by the way that this has been resolved," Hayes said.

Kim Farah, a spokeswoman for the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the church was not prepared to comment on the case Wednesday afternoon.

BLM spokesman Steven Hall said the agency would start reworking existing signs and putting up new signs at the sight as soon as possible. He said the cost of the new signs would be minimal.

"It's a fairly simple resolution to an issue," Hall said. "This is a special place that means a great deal to a variety of people both for religious significance and historic significance. We're just happy to have come to this resolution."

The Pony Express, the Oregon Trail, the California Trail and the Mormon Trail all passed through the area of southern Wyoming where Martin's Cove is located. In October of 1856, an early blizzard caught Mormon handcart settlers on the trail, forcing them to seek shelter in the cove. About 100 died in the blizzard along the trail.

Thousands of Mormon pilgrims visit the site each year, some re-enacting the handcart trek in period clothing and pushing full handcarts.

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