House clears sale of sacred site to church
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TUESDAY, JUNE 18, 2002

The House on Monday approved legislation to sell more than 900 acres of federal land to a religious group over objections that the deal would open the door to tribes claiming sacred sites.

By a voice vote, the chamber approved a bill sponsored by several members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church wants Martin's Cove in Wyoming because it was the location where Mormon pioneers died in an 1856 blizzard.

The measure's chief proponent is retiring Rep. Jim Hansen (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Resources Committee. Hansen and other sponsors argued that the Mormon Church would be a better caretaker of the land, which is currently under the control of the Bureau of Land Management.

They also argued that transfers involving tribes set the precedent for the bill. Turning around arguments raised by critics, Hansen's committee cited cases involving the Zuni Tribe of New Mexico, the Havasupai Tribe of Arizona and the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin as laying the groundwork for the Mormon bill.

Still, the bill faces challenges in the days ahead. All members of Wyoming's Congressional delegation oppose the measure, including Sens. Craig Thomas (R) and Mike Enzi (R).

The key argument made against the deal involves sacred sites located on federal land. The opponents cite Medicine Wheel and Devil's Tower, both located in Wyoming, as key places eyed by tribes should the bill become law.

Conservationists and historic preservation groups also raise objections, although for different reasons. During House hearings on the bill, they cited concerns about continued public access, which the Mormon Church has promised to abide, and the site's existing protections. Martin's Cove is a National Historic Landmark.

The legislation was scaled back in response to some of the complaints. Instead of the original 1,640 acres, the House panel whittled the land sale to 940 acres.

Hansen's committee has jurisdiction over Indian issues and the approval of the Mormon bill lent support to other work under development. Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), the panel's ranking member, is drafting a package to increase protection of sacred sites on federal land.

"Why is it lawful to transfer federal lands to mining companies for fast food hamburger prices, but not a sacred site such as Martin's Cove or Valley of Chiefs to a church and to a tribe?" he said last month, referring to a controversy which developed last year over drilling in an area considered sacred to a number of tribes.

Get the Bill:
H.R.4103 (To direct the Secretary of the Interior to transfer certain public lands in Natrona County, Wyoming, to the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop, and for other purposes)

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Wyo. delegates oppose sacred site sale (5/30)
Sacred site sale opposed (5/27)
House panel approves sacred site sale (5/23)
Congress considering sacred sites (5/21)
Interior worried about Mormon sale (5/15)