WASHINGTON — The U.S. House of Representatives sided with a small Garland County congregation Wednesday evening, approving a land swap between Walnut Grove Community Church and the U.S. Forest Service.
Republicans and Democrats joined forces on the measure, passing it by a vote of 379-3. All four of Arkansas’ Republican representatives voted for it.
The house of worship, which sits beside a small cemetery, was placed on federal land in 1938. The congregation has offered to trade roughly 6 acres along the Ouachita National Forest for the 4-acre plot where it worships and buries its dead.
If it passes the Senate and becomes law, the Walnut Grove Land Exchange Act would direct the U.S. agriculture secretary to proceed with the property swap.
Costs arising from the real estate transfer would be borne by the congregation.
If an appraiser determined that the church-owned 6-acre plot is less valuable than the government-owned 4-acre plot, the church would make a cash payment so that both sides receive “equal value.” In the event that the government is getting the better deal, no cash payment would be required.
The church chose its location because it bordered a small community graveyard that predates the U.S. Forest Service by several decades.
The initial building went up eight decades ago. A larger sanctuary was built around 1991.
Walnut Grove members have tried, for more than two decades, to obtain the property, a spot on the map along Arkansas 298. Each year since 2002, they’ve been required to request and obtain a special-use permit in order to continue worshipping at the site, north of Lake Ouachita and 12 miles west of Jessievillecq.
They’re now required to make annual payments to the Forest Service — roughly $4,000 over the next decade if the arrangement continues, the Congressional Budget Office said. In addition, any changes to the property must be approved by federal officials.
In a speech on the House floor, the bill’s sponsor, 4th District U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, urged his colleagues to take action.
“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,” the Republican from Hot Springs said.
“It is time we stop this 20-year merry-go-round. This bill is vitally important to this congregation, and it’s past time that we help them resolve their issue,” he added.
During House debate Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., praised his colleague for championing a “common-sense land exchange that will greatly benefit the community of Jessieville at no cost to the American taxpayer.”
“The land exchange authorized by this bill includes common-sense safeguards that ensure fair compensation for the value of public lands and I am happy to support its adoption and urge my colleagues to vote ‘yes,’” said U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass.
Church members monitored Wednesday’s developments and said they were heartened by the outcome.
“I think it’s a great thing. It’s a positive step for us that we hadn’t had in a long time. Forever, really,” church deacon Trey Bassett said.
Now, the battle shifts to the other chamber.
“I’m hoping that it will have the same outcome in the Senate. That’s actually what we’re praying for as a church and as a congregation,” Bassett said.
U.S. Sen. John Boozman, a Republican from Rogers, and U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Dardanelle, have already introduced companion legislation to green-light the land trade.