SAN DIEGO, Calif. — As early settlers made their way across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains in search of new opportunities, they endured hardships and overcame overwhelming obstacles. Preserving their legacy and telling their story “through the trail” is a responsibility The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints “holds near and dear,” said Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Speaking to members of the Oregon-California Trails Association on Friday, Jan. 28, Elder Christofferson said the overland trail legacy helped shaped the world. The meeting was held in the Temple Beth Israel synagogue in San Diego.
His address was part of the San Diego Historic Trails Symposium — one of numerous commemorative events this weekend celebrating the 175th anniversary of the Mormon Battalion’s 2,100-mile march from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to San Diego, California, in 1846.
Commemoration celebrations Saturday, Jan. 29, will include a parade held at the Old Town San Diego State Historical Park, along with games, music, displays and food.
In his remarks to the Oregon-California Trails Association, Elder Christofferson called for continued collaboration and preservation of historic overland trails.
He said Latter-day Saints have long celebrated “the epic emigration” of some 70,000 pioneers from Europe and America who came overland by wagon and handcart to Utah between 1847 and 1868.
The pioneer story is “a defining chapter in history,” he said, talking about “a robust network” of dozens of historic sites and properties, including the Wyoming Mormon Trail Sites.
The Wyoming sites “are particularly significant to Latter-day Saints because they witnessed one of the most dramatic rescues of overland emigrants in American history in the fall of 1856,” he said. “The faith, devotion, perseverance, sacrifice and charity manifested by the rescued and the rescuers make these sites sacred to members of the Church.”
Elder Christofferson said that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of Latter-day Saint youth participated in handcart treks annually. “Local Church leaders sought to provide an experience that physically challenged youth and deepened their appreciation for their heritage,” he said.
In 1996, the Church purchased the Sun Ranch, a national historic landmark on a portion of the Oregon, Mormon Pioneer, California, and Pony Express trails. “The development of a trail to access Martin’s Cove through the Sun Ranch sparked the interest of Church members in the handcart past,” he said, noting that local leaders hoped to give youth “a memorable foot-on-the-ground experience while disconnected from modern-day amenities.”
Elder Christofferson said heavy use of portions of the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail has resulted in efforts to maintain a proper balance between resource preservation and visitor use consistent with the purposes outlined in the National Trails System Act of 1968.
“That act states that national historic trails are ‘to provide for the outdoor recreation needs of an expanding population’ and ‘to promote the preservation of, public access to, travel within and enjoyment and appreciation of the open-air, outdoor areas and historic resources of the nation,’” he said.
Elder Christofferson acknowledged that, in the past, “enthusiastic Church members, eager to create meaningful trekking experiences, have engaged in activities that resulted in adversely impacting portions of the trail. As a result, several policies and procedures have been put in place that heighten awareness and improve trail preservation efforts on both Church and Bureau of Land Management lands.
“For example, the Church has produced a website and handbook for trek leaders, both of which contain explicit guidelines for responsible trail use,” he said. “A historic guide is also provided to train missionary volunteers who staff and manage the trail resources used and owned by the Church. This guide is regularly updated with instructions relating to the protection and preservation of trail resources.”
In addition to educating those who use segments of the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail, the Church also promotes trail preservation by encouraging trekkers to use other Church-owned lands for their trekking experiences far removed from historic trails, said Elder Christofferson. “Currently, there are several other designated trekking areas on Church property including sites in Utah, Florida, Oklahoma, Idaho, California, Washington and Argentina.”
Read more: How handcart treks in Argentina are connecting youth with their Latter-day Saint pioneer legacy
Church leaders recognize, Elder Christofferson added, “that overland trails are national treasures and acknowledge that there has been some tension in the past between the Church and trail advocates regarding the preservation of trails.”
“We are committed and look forward to strengthening partnerships and improving our efforts,” he said.
The Church owns more than 26 miles, scattered across several states, of the Oregon, California, Mormon Pioneer, and Pony Express trails, he said.
“As stewards of those historical trails, the Church is making a concerted effort, through various means, to provide for the long-term preservation of existing trails,” he said.
The Church is also actively working with the National Park Service to improve the experience of those visiting Latter-day Saint sites in Wyoming. As part of this effort, the Church worked with the park service to create new signage along the Mormon Pioneer Trail in Iowa and is currently collaborating with the National Park Service as they revise the Mormon Pioneer Trail brochure map.
Additionally, Latter-day Saint leaders have developed working relationships with other trail partners including the Bureau of Land Management, the Oregon-California Trails Association, the Old Spanish Trail Association and the Mormon Battalion Association, he said. “A representative of the Church History Department also participates in the Utah Trails Consortium, an organization consisting of representatives from all the previously mentioned trail organizations plus other individuals interested in the trails.”
Recent efforts and priorities
Elder Christofferson said nearly all Latter-day Saint pioneers between 1847 and 1868 passed through the Sweetwater Valley, as did roughly 500,000 others on their way to Oregon and California.
He shared recent efforts and priorities regarding the preservation of the trail in two areas: 1) educating visitors, and 2) how the Church is regulating trekking at specific sites.
In 2019, oversight of day-to-day operations of all Church’s historic sites, including those along the trails in Wyoming, were transferred from the Missionary Department to the Church History Department. “This change has allowed for a new approach at our sites and Church History has taken the lead in both the operations and messaging allowing greater emphasis to be placed upon the historical value of these trails.”
Elder Christofferson said that over the years, many man-made structures have been added at these sites. “Church History Department staff are re-evaluating the need for these structures and removing those that are not essential to the visitor experience and detract from the historical landscape surrounding the trails,” he said. “In some instances, structures that were once part of the historic site have been returned to their original locations.”
In addition to implementing new rules on how treks can be carried out, the Church History Department implemented a new online reservation system that limits the number of groups that can trek at these sites each year.
“The Church continues to implement measures in hopes of improving our role as stewards and partners in preserving these historic trails,” he said. “Church property includes some significant trail remnants on the four officially designated Historic Trails. While it is impossible to preserve the trails in a pristine state forever, we are confident that the management guidelines in place will conserve current conditions, mitigate adverse impacts and restore damaged sections while also allowing visitors to have first-hand experience with these historic trails.
“The trail story continues to capture the attention and admiration of all Americans.”