RIVERTON, Wyo. — A new Martin's Cove lease does not give The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a right of first refusal to buy the federal property if it ever came up for sale.
In an earlier draft of the lease, the Bureau of Land Management afforded the church "a right of first refusal to purchase, lease or otherwise manage Martin's Cove" if the property were sold or title was transferred to another party. In the lease signed Tuesday, the word "purchase" is excluded.
Don Ogaard, BLM's manager for the Martin's Cove site, said that change was made to reflect the original language of the congressional act mandating the lease of the church last year.
"That was discussed during the internal review," he told the Casper Star-Tribune. "The feeling was, 'Why have it in there? Why not just go back to the language that was in the act itself? Don't embellish the law.' "
Ogaard was not part of the internal review.
Lloyd Larsen, stake president with the LDS Church in Riverton, said the change did not bother him.
"We've tried to keep the language of the lease in harmony with the language of the legislation," Larsen said.
The legislation passed last year gives the church control over the 933.49-acre area for 25 years, and authorized right of first refusal for renewing the lease.
Martin's Cove is where Mormon pioneers in 1856 sought shelter during an October blizzard. National historic trails such as the Pony Express, Oregon, California and Mormon trails are nearby.
Critics of leasing the area to a church fear leasing an area of national importance is problematic.
"This is precedent setting, and a national historic landmark has been given by the BLM to a religious group," said Barbara Dobos of the Alliance for Historic Wyoming. "My concern is that the land is part of the national historic trails and American history, and I hate to see it given to a group who might give it a single interpretation of history."
Mormon visitors typically have outnumbered other visitors to the site about 55 miles southwest of Casper.
Ogaard said the lease signing is largely a paper transaction, and the church has not proposed any changes to the area.
"We don't expect people on the ground would notice any difference, since no physical components have been proposed," he said.
Under the lease, the church will pay $16,000 per year to the BLM.
BLM State Director Bob Bennett said the lease is a boon to the agency.
"Quite frankly, as long as there's public access and it's good public access and maintenance, it takes (cost) off our back and the public's back, and that's a good situation," he said.