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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The American Civil Liberties Union may soon go to court to challenge a U.S. Bureau of Land Management decision to lease the Wyoming site of the deaths of dozens of Mormon pioneers to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The Salt Lake Tribune reported Tuesday.
"We're very close to making a final decision, that's all I can say at this point," ACLU attorney Mark Lopez said of suing over Martin's Cove in southern Natrona County.
The BLM signed a 25-year lease with church officials last year, giving the church management control of 933 acres in exchange for annual payments of $16,000.
Although ACLU officials declined to discuss any litigation, Wyoming residents who asked to be considered as plaintiffs said any lawsuit would name the BLM and Department of Interior, not the LDS Church, as the defendants, The Tribune reported.
Recreationists, historians and descendants of LDS pioneers are among those claiming to have been harmed by leasing the historic site to a religious organization.
The BLM did an environmental assessment before signing the lease and found no adverse effects on the land or the public from church management. But organizations such as the Alliance for Historic Wyoming and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have criticized several provisions in the lease.
The pact states that church officials may establish visitation guidelines on the public land "with respect to such issues as firearms, alcoholic beverages, controlled substances, smoking, public health and safety, the respectful and peaceful use of the leased land, and conduct consistent with the historic nature of the resource."
In an administrative appeal filed in November, the alliance claimed the BLM undervalued the historic tourism site by classifying it as undeveloped grazing land. The group also charged that giving the church preferential rights to buy the land in the future constitutes an illegal sale of public property without congressional approval.
Considered sacred ground to Mormon faithful, many scholars say Martin's Cove is the primary campsite where companies of European converts tugging handcarts across the high plains hunkered down in an October blizzard. About 200 people perished from starvation and exposure before rescue teams arrived from Salt Lake City.
The LDS Church bought a private ranch next to the handcart site and has operated a visitor center that attracts an estimated 35,000 people annually.
The church originally sought to buy Martin's Cove under legislation introduced by then-U.S. Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah. But Wyoming's congressional delegation balked and Congress ordered the BLM to negotiate a long-term lease with the church.
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)