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NC State refocuses on conservation of Hofmann Forest

Posted March 17, 2015

The 79,000-acre Hofmann Forest in Jones and Onslow counties is the largest university-owned teaching and research forest in the world.
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— Three months after a controversial sale of Hofmann Forest fell through, North Carolina State University officials said Tuesday that they would retain control of most of the 79,000-acre research forest near the coast.

The Endowment Fund of N.C. State and the Natural Resources Foundation said the change in direction would protect much of the land from intensive development, maintaining a sustainable working forest and access to it for students and faculty.

"We believe this is the most responsible way to move forward," Chancellor Randy Woodson said in a statement. "We learned a great deal during last year’s sales effort and in the process became aware of long-term opportunities that allow for greater control of the land and ultimately more benefit to the College of Natural Resources, its students and faculty."

The new plan includes the following:

  • Negotiating the sale of easements and leases to support the training needs of the Navy and Marine Corps
  • Potentially selling a multi-decade timber deed on approximately 56,000 acres of existing pine plantation with requirements for certified sustainable practices
  • Negotiating conservation easements for the approximately 18,000-acre Big Open Pocosin
  • Potentially selling the current 1,600-acre farm for continued agricultural use
  • Potentially selling the two mitigation banks, totaling about 450 acres, for continued mitigation use
  • Developing a long-term strategy for the approximately 4,000 acres south of N.C. Highway 17 near Jacksonville that considers its best use
  • Exploring additional conservation prospects

N.C. State had planned to sell 56,000 acres of Hofmann Forest to Resource Management Service of Alabama, a timber management firm, and the remaining 23,000 acres to Hofmann Forest LLC, an Illinois-based agribusiness firm that planned to develop part of the property.

The two firms would have paid a total of $131 million for the land.

Woodson said retaining ownership of the forest would trade off short-term financial return for control of the property and greater return over many years.

Under the new plan, the endowment could see more than $125 million in return in the next several years and more over the succeeding decades, officials said. The additional resources would strengthen research and academic offerings within the College of Natural Resources by providing additional scholarships, funding new experiential education opportunities for students, facilitating interdisciplinary research and supporting new professorships.

"This plan will generate significant income for the college while maintaining control over future uses of the property,” said Mary Watzin, dean of the College of Natural Resources. “It supports the strategic needs of the college and ultimately may serve as a model for sustainable solutions to the twin challenges of natural resource conservation and economic development."

The land in Hofmann Forest was bought in the 1930s for research and to provide income for N.C. State's forestry program. University officials proposed the sale two years ago because they said the land wasn't generating enough revenue and wasn't being used very much for research.

A group of N.C. State professors, foresters and environmentalists filed suit in September 2013, alleging that the sale would violate the state constitution's mandate of conserving public lands for public benefit. They argued that the school downplayed the land's research value, as well as its environmental role, and that the endowment board didn't obtain public input on the proposed sale, as required under state environmental regulations.

A Superior Court judge ruled the sale could move forward, and the dispute went before state Supreme Court before the sale fell through in December, ending the case.

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