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David Turner and his son Jared climb to the top of Independence Rock

David Turner and his son Jared climb to the top of Independence Rock in November 2008. The Turners stopped at Independence Rock as a part of their children’s studies of the Oregon Trail. A debate is brewing over how many miles should buffer historic trails in the Bureau of Land Management’s new Lander field office resource management plan.

LANDER, Wyo. — In 1856, a group of Mormon pioneers set out west. They started the trip late in the season and were caught by a snowstorm raging across what is now Wyoming. Thousands of people found themselves trapped, trying to push handcarts through the drifts and make their way to Salt Lake City.

Rescuers from Salt Lake City found the stranded pioneers and together they took refuge in a place now known as Martin’s Cove, said Jenny Lund, a director of church historic sites for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ history department.

“Everybody who’s descended from Mormon pioneers, their ancestors went through that area,” Lund said. “That is really a defining a time for church membership.”

A chunk of that historical trail runs through an area managed by the Bureau of Land Management’s Lander field office. It is one of the major components of a resource management plan that will guide the office for the next 20 years.

The BLM is accepting comments on the plan through Friday.

The plan covers topics ranging from energy development to livestock grazing to sage grouse habitat in the 2.5 million acres in Fremont, Natrona, Hot Springs, Carbon and Sweetwater counties. But one of the most significant aspects of the plan deals with historic trails.

Four congressionally designated trails — the Oregon, California, Mormon and Pony Express — and one congressional scenic trail, the Continental Divide, run the length of the lower Lander field office area, according to Kristin Yannone, the BLM’s project leader. With few exceptions the segments, which span about 75 miles, are all considered significant.

The Lander field office issues more than 70,000 permits a year for trail access, Yannone said.

Historic trail pioneers kept extensive journals, and many wrote about seeing such landmarks as Independence Rock and Split Rock. The trails are mainly intact, and most of those same views can be seen today, she said.

In its management plan, the BLM tried to maintain the trails’ settings, allowing people to experience the trails the way they were 100 years ago. Additionally, Yannone said, the BLM tried to balance the counties’ and the state’s needs.

Buffer zones

Currently, as established in the 1987 plan, the trails have a quarter-mile buffer on each side to limit development. However, Yannone said more people now use the trails and there is a better understanding and appreciation for the trails’ views — instead of just the physical trails, or ruts, in the ground. The preferred plan for trail management calls for five miles on each side of the trails.

The proposed buffer is seen by many people as the crux of the new trail management plan and has garnered criticism and praise.

Fremont County commissioners think the buffers in the preferred alternative are too large.

“We can’t live with that 10-mile impregnable barrier across our county,” commission Chairman Doug Thompson said, noting that there needs to be a way to create corridors and roads while still protecting the trail system.

Thompson doesn’t want the historic trails to stymie future development or take away potential income from the county. He said disallowing structures and developments within several miles of the trails isn’t acceptable.

“That’s very extreme,” Thompson said.

Fences or energy development below the hills might not be seen from the trails and should still be allowed, he said.

There also are public health issues, specifically snow fences, which might obstruct the views but are needed to ensure safety on highways.

“I think there’s going to have to be some consideration, maybe public health and safety trumping that unimpaired viewshed,” Thompson said.

Thompson would like to see three-mile buffers on each side of the best trail segments, and as short as a quarter of a mile along other parts of the trails. That would be more in line with trails in other areas, Thompson said.

“The county wants to protect the best segments and sections, but we still have to do business,” he said.

If the types of restrictions proposed were in place back when the pioneers made their way West, the trails wouldn’t exist in the first place, Thompson said.

Meanwhile, historical groups are praising the trail protections and wish the buffers were even larger.

The Mormon Church is evaluating the plan, Lund said.

Following history

Each year, thousands of church members re-enact the journey. Youth group members learn about their ancestors and the traits, faith and perseverance that helped them through the arduous migration.

“It’s a form of living history,” Lund said.

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The church receives about 25,000 permits each year for the trek.

It’s important to protect the viewsheds, especially at critical points on the trail, Lund said. That gives people a chance to share the experience with those that came before, seeing the same horizons and landscapes as the early pioneers.

“When too much starts to intrude on that viewshed, that will intrude on that experience with trying to connect to the past,” Lund said.

The Oregon-California Trails Association is also weighing in on the plan. The best option would be an alternative that maximizes protection for cultural resources, including offering a 20-mile buffer, said David Welch with the organization. The group, however, realizes that likely won’t happen and is generally satisfied with the preferred alternative, he said.

The organization worries about wind turbines, which can be seen up to 30 miles away.

Welch, who lives in Washington, comes to Wyoming each year and hikes parts of the trail. He said the section from Independence Rock to South Pass is one of the best-preserved segments of the entire Oregon and California trails.

Welch’s ancestors came through the area in 1847 on the way to Oregon. Another family group came through in 1854.

“It’s kind of a personal thing for me,” he said. “When I go to these places, I think of them walking through the area 160 years ago.”

Tom Rea of Casper is president of the Wyoming chapter of the Oregon-California Trails Association. He said it’s important to keep the trails intact because they represent a part of the country’s heritage. He said the viewsheds are a crucial part of that.

“The wonderful thing about our wonderful state is that it looks pretty much the same,” he said.

The trails provide “tourism for history buffs,” Rea said. He hopes the idea catches on and sections of the trails in other areas receive similar treatment.

The comment period for the plan was extended to Friday at the request of state and local governments.

Gov. Matt Mead will make comments on the plan, said Renny MacKay, the governor’s communications director, in an email. However, until the plan is finalized, MacKay said he couldn’t offer specifics about Mead’s opinion. He did say Mead “will scrutinize this RMP closely” and noted it deals with important topics for the state in areas including conservation, historic preservation, agriculture, energy development and the economy.

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