ALCOVA, Wyo. — Jim Cagney remembers a recent meeting where a person questioned the impact of hundreds of handcart-trek re-enactments and hundreds of thousands of participants on Bureau of Land Management property over the past dozen-plus years.
"The speaker used the phrase 'lovin' it to death,' — and I was offended by that," said Cagney, manager of the BLM's Lander (Wyo.) Field Office, which oversees LDS Church use of BLM land in historic Mormon Trail areas. "The (handcart) program is really well-run, and we're happy with it," he said, then repeating the phase with a twist. "Just 'lovin' it.' "
Elder David Freeman, the LDS service missionary currently directing the Mormon Handcart Historic Sites, echoes Cagney's sentiment regarding the lease arrangement and shared management of trail-related BLM property by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"It's a good working relationship, a good partnership," Freeman said.
Despite some growing pains the first few years, the 14-year relationship is at its best now in allowing access to historic stretches of Wyoming's wind-swept ridges and plains.
While handcart treks are re-enacted all over the world, the Mormon Handcart Sites include the actual locations of the suffering and rescue in 1856 of the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies.
That includes the well-known Martin's Cove some 50 miles southwest of Casper, Wyo., and the Willie sites of Sixth Crossing, Rocky Ridge and Rock Creek Hollow, about an hour's drive west from Martin's Cove.
"We call it the flagship operation — these are the places where it all happened," said Elder Richard Bretzing, supervisor of the LDS missionary couples serving at the church's agricultural properties, including the Mormon Handcart Sites. In the mid-1990s, the LDS Church bought 12,000 acres and the buildings of the Sun Ranch and entered into a five-year easement to access the adjacent Martin's Cove.
In 1997, it opened a visitors center and site that drew more than 70,000 people in the 150th anniversary of the first Mormon pioneers reaching the Salt Lake Valley; more than a quarter of a million visited the first five years.
Hoping to acquire the Martin's Cove property, the church in 1998 proposed a land purchase or swap. A congressional bill for such a sale passed the House but stalled in the Senate in 2002 as opponents worried about the sale to a religious group of the National Register of Historic Sites land once crisscrossed by the Mormon, California and Oregon trails as well as the Pony Express.
In 2004, the LDS Church and BLM signed a 25-year lease of the 940-acre Martin's Cove property, allowing the church day-to-day management and maintenance over the cove and the Willie Company sites.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued the BLM, protesting a religious organization managing BLM property. The ACLU suit was dropped as the BLM and LDS Church reached agreements on matters such as appropriate signage, public access and visitation guidelines.
Another key agreement: That the church's 60-plus missionary couples serving annually onsite focus on management and maintenance roles and simply answer questions rather than approach visitors in what may be interpreted as proselytizing.
In the first years after the 1997 Mormon Pioneer sesquicentennial, interest in trek re-enactments mushroomed. While the Martin's Cove area of the Mormon Handcart Historic Sites was able then — and now — to accommodate all visitors and trekkers, the ecological sensitivities of the Willie sites along the 30 miles from Sixth Crossing to Rock Creek Hollow required a scaling back of the trail-travel permits allowed the church.
After 12,000 trudged along the Willie sites in 2002, the BLM cut back to 7,500 individual permits in 2005 and the next year to 5,000 — the number of permits currently allowed. However, because of the good rapport and past results, it's not uncommon for the BLM to free up supplemental permits for LDS group use, such as the additional 1,000 this year.
While the relationship is positive, it's not quite perfect. But the problems arise not from the church nor its onsite missionaries keeping its commitments, but occasionally members of visiting groups not following rules, such as going off the trails.
Cagney said it's a problem on any BLM property, not just those managed by the church, where a group tries to avoid a muddy trail area and unwittingly starts to create a new path.
Both Freeman and Bretzing say re-enactment compliance to rules and guidelines are not just to honor the BLM conditions but to follow the charge given by LDS leaders.
"We're to keep the areas as pristine as possible for future generations," Freeman said.
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