Hold on Hofmann Forest

May 7, 2013 

Hofmann Forest is something special, both for its value as a research site for the College of Natural Resources at N.C. State University, and for its size, 80,000 acres near Jacksonville. It was named for Julius Hofmann, founding chairman of the university’s forestry department.

A move to sell the forest has been in the university’s plans for some time, justified by advocates of the sale as a good way to raise perhaps $120 to $150 million. Now, officials acknowledge they’re actually negotiating with a potential buyer. The argument for the sale goes that the university has other natural sites where scientists can do research. That’s true, but this vast acreage is a tremendous asset that brings in between $1.5 million and $2 million annual from timber sales. And once the university sells it, it’s gone forever.

A measure of secrecy is disturbing. College Dean Mary Watzin has declined to name the potential buyer, and says the asking price won’t be disclosed until a contract is signed. The negotiations and terms are being carried out by the N.C. State University Foundation board.

It is not acceptable for a public institution, whether represented by a private foundation or not, to conduct business of this magnitude without more fully disclosing the price and terms. That would be fine for a private institution or business, but N.C. State is a public institution owned by the people of North Carolina. It can’t do business that way.

Chancellor Randy Woodson, who has shown himself to be comfortable with openness and public disclosure, needs to make that clear to other officials.

And while he’s at it, he should pull the reins on this sale until faculty members who oppose it and other officials who question the wisdom of such a sale have had a chance to express themselves. After all, 80,000 acres is a site that few mortals can comprehend; and it seems logical to expect that while the timber benefits continue to come in, the property will only increase in value.

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