Treks on the trails hurting history?
The influx of tourism has raised concerns about keeping paths in tact.
SWEETWATER STATION, Wyo. (AP) -- The wagon wheel ruts are still visible in places. Even after 150 years, they mark the toil and struggles of thousands of pioneers who settled the West.
And while they are not near modern highways, these parallel grooves in the sand and clay are again attracting tens of thousands of pioneers from around the world who seek to relive the experiences of their ancestors.
But in a twist of history, the new trekkers -- mostly members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- are making their own tracks and endangering parts of the original trail.
Some areas of the trail started "looking more like a road than a historic trail," said Jack Kelly, manager of the Bureau of Land Management office in Lander.
In a mutual desire to protect the trail, the BLM and the LDS church agreed to curtail the church-sponsored journeys -- but not do away with them altogether.
This summer's first wave of church trekkers started out in mid-June. Over a 28-mile stretch of the Mormon and Oregon pioneer trails, they walk or pull handcarts modeled after ones Mormon pioneers hauled over the trail from 1846 to 1869.
"We're lucky in Wyoming because so much of the trail is intact," said Lloyd Larsen, president of the Mormon church in Riverton. "We've seen just a huge increase in interest over the last 10 years. I think people are intrigued by the past. If you understand the past, it gives you some direction for the future."
The original Mormon trail extended 1,300 miles over five states, beginning in Nauvoo, Ill., and traversing Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming and into Utah. Faced with religious and political violence in Illinois, including the 1844 shooting death of church founder Joseph Smith, some 70,000 Mormons led by Brigham Young migrated west over the trail to settle in the Salt Lake Valley.
The exodus occurred before the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869. Some traveled by wagon train. Those who couldn't afford the wagon train, built wooden, two-wheeled handcarts that held food, cooking utensils, extra clothing, a tent and bedding.
In Wyoming, the Mormon trail enters in the southeast part of the state, heads northwest to Casper and then southwest to Utah. Along the way are such landmarks as the Mormon Ferry, built by the first group of emigrants led by Young; Independence Rock, on which the names of pioneers are still clearly engraved; Devil's Gate, a unique narrow passage; and Martin's Cove, where more than 100 Mormon pioneers died after being caught in a fierce snowstorm in October 1856.
"It's just an intriguing saga this country has been blessed with," Larsen said.
For more than a century, the historic pioneer trails traversing Wyoming -- the Mormon, Oregon, Bozeman and California trails -- got little notice from tourists.
But interest started to grow after local LDS church members decided to commemorate the story of the pioneers in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the church's move west in 1847. They researched the pioneers, documented their stories and started the handcart trek.
"As groups have come and experienced that, it just spread word of mouth," Larsen said.
By 2002, the number of people making the trek exploded to 12,000. Local church members invested much time and money to provide water, camping facilities and other improvements.
The trek starts at Sixth Crossing -- a pioneer crossing point on the Sweetwater River in south-central Wyoming -- and snakes its way over a hilly landscape. It climbs the jagged limestone of Rocky Ridge, then descends to Rock Creek, where there is a cemetery for 15 Mormon pioneers who died in a snowstorm.
"The first time was difficult. You don't really expect it to be so rocky and rugged. And the weather is constantly changing up there," said Eli Zent, 18, of Shoshoni, who has done the handcart trek three times -- the first time when he was 12.
But Zent said the treks gave him an appreciation of history and educated him about his ancestors who came over the trail in 1857.
"It's kind of a fun thing for people to say they pulled a handcart over Rocky Ridge," said Larsen, who also has completed the trek.
Jackie Meeker, executive director of the Lander Chamber of Commerce, said the interest in the pioneer trails is indicative of growing interest for historical sites and events that mark the westward movement in the United States.
"Statistically, cultural tourism is gaining in popularity," Meeker said. "Certainly after 9/11 we experienced a rush to investigate your own back yard."
But with the number of trekkers growing so quickly, the treks began to take a toll on the old trail.
The BLM, which owns most of the land over which the trek traverses, decided to limit the number of church trekkers to 7,500 this year and to 5,000 in 2006, and will ban motorized vehicles from one two-mile section of the trail. In addition, organized church treks will be limited to 200 at a time and to weekdays, so the general public can visit the trail on weekends.
Kelly said BLM would continue to study the trail to see if it needs to adjust the numbers later.
Larsen said the church supports the BLM's decision because it wants to see the trail preserved. Church-sponsored treks are booked through 2008 under the limits.
The church also has established a visitor center and small museum at Martin's Cove with an overview of the Mormon trail and some church history. It also has wooden handcarts for a much shorter pull over well-kept paths. Church volunteers dressed in period clothing provide perspective on the pioneer life.
Don Elm, 60, of Valencia, Calif., and his 70-year-old brother Bruce Elm, of Provo, Utah, stopped at Martin's Cove as part of a two-week journey along the length of the Mormon trail. The two weren't pulling handcarts -- Don Elm cited their age -- but called the site inspiring.
"Being here makes it all come a lot more to life," Don Elm said.