CASPER, Wyo. President Bush is expected to sign a broad spending bill that includes a provision allowing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to lease a historic emigrant site in central Wyoming.
The LDS Church considers the site, known as Martin's Cove, hallowed ground. In 1856, about 150 Utah-bound Mormons died there when their handcart caravan was stranded in a blizzard. The site is now on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property.
The bill provides funding for the Energy Department, Interior Department, water projects, the Army Corps of Engineers and independent agencies such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
During debate in September, Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., inserted a provision into the Senate version of the measure authorizing a 25-year lease to the church.
The church had initially tried to purchase 1,640 acres of BLM land, but after strong public opposition asked for a 99-year lease. Thomas offered instead a 25-year lease for a 940-acre parcel.
Church officials said they are satisfied with the legislation.
While the bill provides a time frame for the lease, it does not contain many specifics, said Casper conservationist Barbara Dobos, who has fiercely opposed the church's previous efforts to buy or lease Martin's Cove.
The specific terms will not be worked out by the Department of Interior and the church until after the president signs the bill, Dobos said.
She said she is hopeful the agency will hold a public comment period before the lease is signed.
Opponents of selling the land, 55 miles southwest of Casper, said it would have opened the door for Indian tribes to purchase sites on federal land they consider sacred. Critics were also concerned that the church would block public access to the cove.
Thomas' provision survived negotiations between the House and Senate on a compromise version of the bill.
The bill, HR2754, was sent to Bush on Nov. 21.