The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doesn't favor the tentative leases proposed recently by the Bureau of Land Management for Martin's Cove, and it now appears that negotiations are headed back to the drawing board with no end in sight.
According to Lloyd Larsen, president of the church's Riverton, Wyo., stake, the latest proposals by the BLM don't give the church any benefits.
"The proposals are lopsided," he said.
However, Larsen said, the church has not closed the door on further discussions and isn't just seeking an outright purchase of the land. He admitted the church would like to own the property but said it would also look with favor on a lease agreement that profits both sides.
Located on 940 acres in south-central Wyoming, Martin's Cove is the place where nearly 150 Mormon pioneers died during a blizzard in 1856.
After the BLM rejected a proposed land swap by the church to
obtain Martin's Cove, the church sought to purchase the property. But because Congress did not approve the proposed sale, no lease is currently in place and the BLM has been pursuing a new lease agreement.
The church's former lease on the land, which is adjacent to property the church purchased in 1996, expired in 2001.
Larsen said the current lease proposals are actually "recreation and public purpose leases" that would give the church a 20-year use contract. After that time, the lease could be renewed after a review. He said such a lease gives the BLM control without any obligations.
He's not sure the BLM can legally modify this type of lease.
"We have not closed the door on any options," Larsen said.
Gary Long, with the Lander, Wyo., BLM field office, could not be reached for comment Tuesday on the latest lease proposals.
Larsen said visitors to Martin's Cove aren't likely to notice any changes, because the church is still operating and maintaining it as before — it just doesn't have a lease in place.
The LDS Church has constructed a visitors center on land it owns next to the cove and has built trails and put up interpretive markers on the federally owned land — all legal under the lease agreement.
More than 250,000 people have visited the site since the improvements were made, according to LDS Presiding Bishop H. David Burton, who testified about the church's preservation efforts before Congress last year. He told those at the hearing, "I do not believe any other group, including the BLM, would have devoted the financial and human resources we have to establish Martin's Cove as the significant historical destination it has become."