By David Hinckley
Enthusiastic members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are flooding public pioneer trails in Wyoming despite concerns and regulations aimed at protecting the environment through limiting the number of visitors who may walk the trail.
Members of the Wyoming Bureau of Land Management are drafting new regulations to protect trails surrounding Rocky Ridge, revered as the place the ill-fated Willie Handcart Company was located in the dead of winter 1857. The BLM is writing a formal “decision record,” which will formally and legally address issues of numbers, wildlife, roads, vegetation, sanitation and coordination with other users. The record should be in place next year.
The church and government already reached a tentative agreement in 2003, capping numbers at 7,500 who may travel the trail.
The agreement followed a jolt when handcart treks that church groups planned in the area rose from a high 2,500 participants in 2001 to a staggering 12,000 in 2002. The increased use took a significant toll on the road.
“Some groups brought refrigerated trucks and huge sound systems right into primitive land area,” said Ray Hanson, the outdoor-recreation planner for the BLM.
But this past summer, the bureau was concerned to see as many as 3,000 visitors from the LDS Church camp at Sixth Crossing near Rocky Ridge take to the trails without registering.
Lloyd Larson, stake president of the Riverton, Wyo., Stake, has maintained close contact with the situation. He said while the church cannot stop unregistered people using the trail, they are careful to not issue handcarts to those who are not registered.
“It isn”t the business of the [Sixth Crossing] campsite to find out where people are going,” he said. “We aren”t the police. But we take extreme efforts to see that when we reach [7,500] we don”t register anyone else for the trail.”
Hanson attributed problems to a lack of training on the part of those who don”t register. Before groups go out, he said, they are taught regulations that help keep the trail intact. And while the BLM wants to keep the situation pleasant, he said, the new regulations will enable law enforcement officers to issue fines.
The regulations cramp travel plans for LDS members who enjoy reenacting the famous trek west.
Beau Parks, 18, a freshman from Parker, Colo., went on a three-day trek in 2003. He said the group of 200 youth from his stake had a great experience. He said he hoped the trek wouldn”t become too restricted.
“I think it would be a shame,” he said, “because it is a great testimony-builder that helps us understand the struggles of the early saints.”
According to the Handcart Visitor”s Center in Wyoming, restrictions only apply to the 26-mile stretch of government-administered land that includes Rocky Ridge. No such restrictions apply to church-owned sites such as Martin”s Cove.
Reservations for Rocky Ridge, though, are booked through 2008.