NCSU: Research forest is private land, not state property
Posted November 8, 2013
Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina State University officials are countering an effort to block the pending sale of Hofmann Forest by arguing that the land is privately owned and doesn't have to go through the same processes involved in sales of state property.
A university endowment said last week that it plans to sell the 79,000-acre forest in Jones and Onslow counties to an Illinois-based agribusiness company for $150 million.
A group of N.C. State professors, foresters and environmentalists is trying to halt the sale, and a preliminary injunction hearing is scheduled next week.
"It is our crown jewel. It's the show place for the world, and it is world-renowned," said Fred Cubbage, a former head of N.C. State's Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Hofmann Forest 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.
"The bottom line was that it was critical as a financial resource to support the work of all of our students and faculty, and it was much less important as a location to do teaching and research," College of Natural Resources Dean Mary Watzin said.
University officials said they expect the proceeds of the sale to generate $6 million a year in revenue for the college, which they said is more than triple the current annual yield from owning the property.
N.C. State officials note that less than 2 percent of sponsored forest research in the college is done in Hofmann Forest; most is done at Schenk Forest in Raleigh and Hill Forest in Durham. Also, only 80 of the college's 1,400 undergraduates are in forestry programs.
Opponents argue that every undergraduate forestry student visits Hofmann Forest for at least one class, and they claim that the N.C. State foundation has limited student use of the forest in recent years.
"This decision is all about money, and it's all about power," said Jim Conner, an environmental lawyer representing the plaintiffs. "The contract does not protect the forest."
While the buyer has agreed to maintain Hofmann Forest's timber and agricultural purposes, Conner said there are no deed restrictions that would prevent another buyer from developing the land if it is resold.
The lawsuit alleges that the sale violates the state constitution's mandate of conserving public lands for public benefit. The plaintiffs 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.
"It's a law that requires environmental impact statements to be prepared before major government actions are taken," Conner said. "The endowment fund concedes it hasn't done that. There's no question about that. They are certainly a state agency."
Watzin responded that Conner is wrong in calling the endowment a state agency.
"It's not owned by N.C. State University. It's owned by the endowment fund, which is an independent organization," she said. "Sales of private property do not require an environmental assessment."