The U.S. House on Wednesday passed a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-District 4, that would exchange land between Walnut Grove Church in Jessieville and the U.S. Forest Service.
A companion bill, introduced on July 17 by U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., has been referred to the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee of the Senate.
H.R. 5923, the Walnut Grove Land Exchange Act, would transfer the ownership of 4 acres of Forest Service land to the church and, in return, give the Forest Service 6.3 acres of land adjacent to the Ouachita National Forest that is owned by the congregation, according to a news release from Westerman's office.
The church and an adjacent cemetery currently sit on the 4 acres of federal land.
The bill passed by a vote of 379-3.
Westerman, during a speech on the House floor prior to passage of the measure, said the Walnut Grove Land Exchange Act "should not need to exist."
Westerman called it a "simple bill" that swaps 4 acres of public property -- which currently houses a community cemetery and church -- with 6 acres of private timberland.
He noted that the church and cemetery were established decades before the Forest Service.
"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 initial reaction," Westerman said.
"Not that this bill, or the church itself, are unimportant. On the contrary, the Walnut Valley Community Church is vital to the rural residents of Garland County," he said.
"The church is not only a place of worship, it has held countless community meetings, and more. Its cemetery 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."
Westerman noted that, under current law, the church does not own the land on which it "worships or buries its dead," and 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 to the church must be done with the explicit permission of the federal government. As a result, the Walnut Grove congregation has not been able to modify or upgrade their 80-year-old building, despite the need to expand to match the growing demands of the community," Westerman said.
"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," he said.
Westerman said "it's time we stop this 20-year merry-go-round. This bill is vitally important to this congregation, and it's past time we resolve this issue."
He noted that the bill has "wide bipartisan and bicameral support," having passed the committee unanimously, and having a companion measure in the Senate.Local on 09/14/2018
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