- The Washington Times - Monday, June 3, 2002

One of the survivors never forgot how wolves menaced the corpse of her husband, waiting for the Mormon pioneers to leave their dead in the bleak canyon where dozens starved and froze in a blizzard.
"The cold chills, even now as I write, creep over my body, for I feel I can still see the wolves waiting for their bodies as they would come down to camp before we left," Elizabeth Sermon wrote in 1856 of the site that became sacred to Mormons.
Nearly 150 years later, the spot known as Martin's Cove in central Wyoming has become the focus of a battle in Congress over who should own the land.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) wants to buy the property because it is an important part of Mormon history; many Westerners object to the sale of public land. It would be the first time a private entity has purchased a national historic site on federal land.
A bill moving through the House would allow the church to purchase Martin's Cove at fair market value from the federal Bureau of Land Management, which controls the property. The legislation is sponsored by Rep. James V. Hansen, Utah Republican and chairman of the House Resources Committee, and five other lawmakers who are members of the LDS church.
"That ground is particularly sacred," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican and a Mormon. "We had a lot of people die there."
Wyoming residents who oppose the sale say it would set a precedent. And some opponents contend the church would use the site on the National Register of Historic Places to proselytize, or to promote Mormon history to the exclusion of other versions.
"The church has a lot of money," said Barbara Dobos, a public-lands advocate in Casper, Wyo., who opposes the sale. "They are buying up trails land from Illinois to Salt Lake City; they have kind of a Mormon national park system. The church does have a habit of preferring their story, naturally, to others. It's called revisionism."
Wyoming's lone House member, Republican Rep. Barbara Cubin, amended the House bill to reduce the size of the site from 1,640 acres to 940 acres and to give the federal government the right of first refusal if the church ever decides to sell the property. Still, Mrs. Cubin said the bill should be defeated.
"Wyoming people are very protective of their public lands," Mrs. Cubin said. "They see themselves as the owner of public lands, and they believe they have a right to access those public lands."
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has called it "the bluntest effort I've ever seen to completely alter an established land-use policy for the explicit benefit of one church, and in addition, having the move sponsored by political figures and members of that church."
The church has built a museum on the property to commemorate the ordeal of pioneers who came West pulling wooden handcarts. In 1856, the Martin and Willie parties departed Iowa City too late in the season and got caught in an October blizzard about 55 miles southwest of Casper.
Even the number of people who perished is disputed nowadays. Some reports put the death toll at 150; Mrs. Dobos believes that no more than 25 Mormons died there, based on archeological evidence and the views of some historians.
"They lost perhaps 20 to 25 people there, and that's unfortunate," she said. "But it's not significant. If this is a sacred site, then is every burial all along the trail a sacred site? Where do you draw the line?"
The debate became so heated this year that Mr. Hansen at one point accused Mrs. Dobos and other opponents of "Mormon-bashing." They had distributed literature accusing the church of "coveting" the property and lawmakers of using "religious influence" in Congress.
Mr. Hansen has said the church is renowned for doing "a first-class job" in preserving history.
"I predict those people who are still opposed to this sale will one day look back and wonder why they ever objected to it," he said earlier this year.
Mrs. Cubin said she perceives bigotry "at a national level" against the church but not in Wyoming.
"You just don't see prejudices and bigotry very much here," she said.
Mr. Hatch said historically there has been bias against the LDS church, but he does not see it in this case.
"I'd be surprised if that's a part of our friends in Wyoming," Mr. Hatch said. "They are great Westerners and they feel deeply about Wyoming."
Mr. Hatch said the church is well-known for its respect for history and is the logical choice to take over managing the property.
"It would become a wonderful historic site for everybody," Mr. Hatch said. "This is optimum historical preservation."


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