House Passes Walnut Grove Land Exchange Act
WASHINGTON – The House on Wednesday (September 12) passed H.R. 5923, the Walnut Grove Land Exchange Act, sponsored by Congressman Bruce Westerman (AR-04).
The bill would facilitate an exchange of land between Walnut Grove Church in Jessieville and the U.S. Forest Service. The church and an adjacent cemetery currently sit on 4 acres of Forest Service land. This bill transfers the ownership of that land to the church, and in return, gives the Forest Service 6.3 acres of land adjacent to the Ouachita National Forest owned by the congregation.
The bill passed with bipartisan support by a vote of 379-3.
Westerman delivered the following speech before passage on the floor (as prepared):
Mr. Speaker, the Walnut Grove Land Exchange Act should not need to exist. It is a simple bill, which swaps four acres of public property – which currently houses a community cemetery and church— with six acres of private timberland.
To those who hear this and think – “Ten acres? Why on earth would it take an act of Congress to exchange a total of ten acres?” – rest assured that I had the same reaction.
Not that this bill, or the church itself are unimportant. On the contrary, the Walnut Valley Community Church is a vital to the rural residents of Garland County.
The church is more than just a place of worship, and has held countless weddings, baptisms, community meetings, and more. It is the final resting place for many of Garland County’s servicemen and women, and the church itself has served as a search and rescue command post in the past.
However, under current law, the church does not own the land it worships on, or buries its dead in. As such, the Forest Service has the authority to raise the church’s use fee each year and has done so over the past decade.
Worse yet, any improvement or restoration of the church must be done with the explicit permission of the federal government. As a result, the Walnut Grove congregation have not been able to modify or upgrade their 80-year-old building, despite the need to expand to match the growing demand of the community.
Members of the congregation have tried for decades to resolve this issue with the Forest Service. They have called, written, and petitioned both the local and regional offices to purchase or exchange the land. They have willingly taken on maintenance of the property and have graciously accepted higher and higher usage fees under the guise that an exchange was coming. An exchange never came.
Mr. Speaker, it is time we correct this 20-year abuse. This bill is vitally important this congregation, and to the rest of Garland County.
My bill has wide bipartisan and bicameral support, having passed committee unanimously, and having a companion measure in the Senate.
I urge a swift passage of this bill and yield back.