RALEIGH — Sale of an 80,000-acre forest could provide a big financial boost for N.C. State University’s Forestry and Environmental Resources Department, but the proposal is drawing sharp criticism from faculty and alumni, who say this “crown jewel” of the forestry program is too important to lose.
NCSU’s Natural Resources Foundation board agreed earlier this month to sell Hofmann Forest, established in 1934 just north of Jacksonville by the forestry department’s founding dean, J.V. Hofmann. The foundation oversees management of Hofmann Forest, as well as other land and investments held by the College of Natural Resources, and its recommendation now goes to the NCSU Board of Trustees for a vote.
“In deciding about the future of the Hofmann, the Foundation considered which options would provide the greatest good for the largest number of CNR faculty, staff and students, and our professions, over the long term,” foundation President Brenda Brickhouse and Natural Resources Dean Mary Watzin said in an email following the decision earlier this month.
A financial analysis determined that income from investing the projected $117 million sale price would ultimately outweigh the educational benefits of Hofmann Forest, Brickhouse said.
“It is a critically unique resource, for sure, to have 80,000 acres in one place,” said Brickhouse, an alumnus of the College of Natural Resources. “The key thing to me is that we have other forests where folks can go and do most of the work now done at Hofmann Forest.”
Dozens of faculty, alumni and students have voiced opposition to sale of the land, which lies in Jones and Onslow counties. The property was acquired for field studies in land and forestry management, in an area described as a wetland or “pocosin,” an Algonquin Indian word meaning “swamp on a hill.”
Sales of trees grown on about half the property, along with other income generated through hunting leases and other means, have provided $1.5 million to $2 million annually in recent years for the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources. The money has been used mostly for scholarships and teaching assistantships for graduate students.
An income analysis commissioned by the foundation determined that selling the land for $117 million and investing the proceeds in a diversified stock fund could bring in at least double that for the department, Watzin said.
“Our responsibility is to think about the greatest good,” she said. “We feel we would get a higher and more regular rate of return through diversified investments. The land was purchased to exclusively benefit the college, and that money would still go to the college.”
Even with higher financial returns, the sale could not offset the benefits of having Hofmann Forest available as an outdoor laboratory for students, said forestry professor Fred Cubbage, who was among several faculty members who wrote to Watzin opposing the sale.
Hofmann Forest is known as the largest educational forest in the U.S. and is a “a crown jewel of sustainable development and management,” Cubbage said.
“We have practiced what we have preached for 79 years, since Julius Hofmann had the vision to create the ultimate teaching and research lab,” he said. “All that is just history if we sell this thing.”
Cubbage said research in tree genetics and biometrics, wetlands management, forest productivity and many other areas has been carried out at Hofmann. He said that work would be difficult to replicate at the department’s other land holdings, which include the 2,400-acre Hill Forest north of Durham, the 250-acre Schenck Forest off Wade Avenue west of Raleigh, and the 1,100-acre Goodwin Forest in Moore County.
About 40 faculty members and more than 50 alumni have signed petitions opposing the forest sale. Comments posted on the College of Natural Resources alumni website have been overwhelmingly opposed.
“Without the Hofmann, NCSU’s forestry program stops being the leading field forestry school on the East Coast,” said Christopher Minguez, who graduated in 2009 and works in the Department of Natural Resources for the state of Alaska.
Bob Abt, a professor who specializes in forest economies, said he thinks Hofmann Forest is “symbolically important” to the department and a benefit to forestry instruction and research.
“But if I have to answer the question, ‘Is it a unique resource that I have to have in order to teach my courses?’ the answer is ‘no,’” Abt said. “If we don’t have the forest anymore, I can still use the database that has been established over the years.”
Abt said as companies such as International Paper and Weyerhaeuser have divested timberland holdings over past 15 years, the most likely buyers for the property are real estate investment trusts or timber investment management organizations, both of which acquire timberland as a hedge against stock market volatility in investment portfolios.
“Turns out that timberland prices aren’t correlated with the stock market,” Abt said. “Trees grow, even in recessions.”
Watzin said the sale of the forest likely would be subject to conditions, including that the land continue as a working forest and that access remain open to faculty and students for teaching and research.
“It is important that any sale of the forest be consistent with the values of the college, and that it would retain the name and legacy of the Hofmann,” she said.
Joe Roise, director of graduate programs for the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, said the fact that faculty and researchers have management control over the property is a major advantage of ownership.
“I do forest management planning and develop large-scale mathematical programs for forests around the world,” Roise said. “The Hofmann may be small by real-world standards, but it’s big enough to do realistic management experiments. No other land base we have has that ability.”
He also pointed out that the property contains the headwaters of three Eastern North Carolina rivers – White Oak, Trent and New.
“Students can do hydrological studies on dynamics of headwaters here, where the land is flat with high organic soil,” Roise said. “It’s a very special place. And it’s the only forest we control on the coastal plain.”
Even if new owners were to allow research to continue on the property, Cubbage says the value for educators, researchers and students would be greatly reduced.
The forested portion of the property was operated under contract to a private company, with similar agreements, in the 1970s and 1980s, Cubbage said. That severely limited how and where NCSU researchers could use the forest, he said.
“We ended up being estranged from our own property for more than a decade,” he said.
“It’s a productive reserve of natural ecosystems managed sustainably. We are proud of it. We’d hate to lose it.”