CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has agreed to a 25-year lease of Martin's Cove from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., said Tuesday.
Martin's Cove is a pocket of prairie encircled by pink granite cliffs in central Wyoming. Many members of a group of Mormon pioneers headed to Utah froze or starved to death there in 1856 after being trapped by a snowstorm.
A management agreement between the church and BLM expired in 2001.
The U.S. Senate Tuesday unanimously approved the lease, which was introduced by Thomas as an amendment to the Energy and Water Development appropriations bill. All federal leases require congressional approval.
The bill now heads to conference committee, where it must be reconciled with a House of Representatives version before it can be signed by President Bush.
"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.
Under the lease, the LDS Church will continue to manage day-to-day operation and maintenance of Martin's Cove facilities, such as the area's foot trail, meeting areas, access road, fence and signs, Thomas said.
The lease will also continue to guarantee that the land remains accessible to the public. The church has been responsible for the area since 1997, Thomas said.
Lloyd C. Larsen, president of the LDS Church's Riverton Wyoming Stake, said he was pleased with the agreement.
"The church has agreed to the 25-year lease that Sen. Thomas introduced today," Larsen said in a prepared statement. "We're grateful to Sen. Thomas and Sen. (Mike) Enzi, R-Wyo., for all they have done to work with us to reach this compromise solution on Martin's Cove."
Approving a lease now will prevent future congressional efforts to sell Martin's Cove to the church, Thomas said.
The lease agreement is similar to others at more than 50 historic and recreational sites in Wyoming and will ensure the church has continued use of the area, Thomas said.
"It is vital for the public to maintain ownership of this nationally significant trail area, but I have said all along that the church does a good job managing the site and should be allowed to continue to do so," he said.
"Martin's Cove is an area of national interest, and thus, the application for the lease of the land was crafted to adequately address issues and concerns expressed by the public. We needed an appropriate way to protect these unique public lands, and I firmly believe this lease meets principles I laid out two years ago."
A BLM spokeswoman in Cheyenne, Cindy Wertz, said no one with the BLM in Wyoming had heard of the lease agreement. She said she did not speak with BLM officials in Washington, D.C.