Raleigh, N.C. — A group of professors, foresters, landowners and wildlife conservationists have filed a lawsuit to block a North Carolina State University foundation from selling a 79,000-acre forest in the eastern part of the state.
Hofmann State Forest, in Jones and Onslow counties, has been owned and managed for the benefit of N.C. State’s College of Natural Resources for nearly 80 years. Officials said it is the largest university-owned teaching and research forest in the world.
"Given its immense size and its strategic location linking Croatan National Forest to additional core protected lands to the north and south, Hofmann State Forest is clearly one of the most significant public conservation areas in North Carolina," said Ron Sutherland, a conservation scientist at Wildlands Network and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
N.C. State announced in April that the Endowment Fund of North Carolina State University, which has held title to the forest since 1977, had agreed to sell the forest, but the buyer and the terms of the deal weren't disclosed.
A Wake County judge on Wednesday denied a temporary restraining order to halt the sale after lawyers from the university and the state Attorney General's Office argued that there was no deal in place to sell the forest and that any sale wasn't imminent.
N.C. State spokesman Brad Bohlander said university officials believe the suit is without merit, maintaining that the foundation has followed all laws, regulations and processes.
"This has been a long, inclusive process that has involved many opportunities for dialogue from those in support and opposition," Bohlander said in a statement.
The plaintiffs said they still plan to seek an injunction barring any future sale, arguing that selling Hofmann Forest would violate the state constitution's mandate of conserving public lands for public benefit. They also maintain that the foundation's board failed to follow state environmental regulations requiring input from public agencies or citizens on the proposal or to consider any alternatives to selling the forest.
“There are many alternatives that were promoted by the Natural Resource Foundation before their ultimate vote to sell Hofmann Forest, such as conservation easements, partial land sales or leases to the military," Frederick Cubbage, the former head of N.C. State's Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources and a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "These alternatives should be fully investigated and considered with agency and public input ... before we decide the fate of this irreplaceable university educational asset.”
Bohlander said a sale of the forest could be in the public interest.
"Any net proceeds of a potential sale of the Hofmann Forest could provide unsurpassed opportunities to expand academic programs, promote research opportunities and increase scholarships for the benefit of the college, students and faculty," he said.