Remember Shel Silversteins book The Giving Tree the one where the boy just takes and takes and the tree just gives and gives until one day the tree gets cut down? Well, Ive come to believe that N.C. State University must be using the Giving Tree as its business book du jour this year, considering its abusive plans for Hofmann Forest.
Lets review the story: The founding Dean of the College of Forestry (now College of Natural Resources) Julius Hofmann managed to buy the forest around the time of the Great Depression, knowing even then that an 80,000-acre tract was a rare and wonderful resource for his fledgling program. With careful management, Hofmann succeeded in making the forest more than pay for itself. After the mortgage was paid off, the forest went on to spend decade after decade supporting the outstanding forestry program at NCSU, not just as a cash cow, but as a resource for teaching and research as well. Hofmann, Ive been told, is the largest university-owned forest tract in the world.
But now, after some clever maneuvering by short-sighted ex-deans of the college and their cronies, the Forestry Foundation that controlled the forest has been subsumed into the Natural Resources Foundation, with only one practicing forester left on the NRF board. With little attachment to the forest, and with dollar signs in its eyes, this NRF board decided to sell Hofmann and convert it into a mixed portfolio of stocks and bonds. Never mind that Wall Street returns have been wretched over the last (lost?) decade. In fact, that was part of the problem the rest of the colleges endowment funds tanked during the Great Recession, placing even more pressure on always-profitable Hofmann to produce unsustainable returns.
Heres the outrageous part: Hofmann Forest is actually owned by the State of North Carolina! The deed was transferred to the NCSU Endowment Fund back in 1977. So in effect, here we have a private foundation deciding to sell an 80,000-acre forest that belongs to you and me, and the NRF is doing it right at the bottom of the timberland market (sell low must be a business lesson from another childrens book I suppose).
Not only is this a clear violation of the NRF and the Endowment Funds fiduciary responsibilities, but it also is a phenomenal betrayal of the public interest in North Carolina. Imagine if the Division of Parks and Recreation unexpectedly decided to sell a dozen of our state parks (which would barely add up to the size of Hofmann) we just wouldnt stand for it! Hofmann Forest is more than a simple investment for the university; it always has been, since the very day it was wisely set aside by Dean Hofmann.
A robust case could be made that the act of selling Hofmann Forest is a violation of the Constitution of North Carolina. Heres the relevant text: It shall be the policy of this State to conserve and protect its lands and waters for the benefit of all its citizenry, and to this end it shall be a proper function of the State of North Carolina and its political subdivisions to acquire and preserve park, recreational, and scenic areas.
Couldnt be clearer. It is our state policy to conserve our land for all of our residents. Selling a huge tract of forest currently owned by the state can only be construed as a direct violation of this policy, and the NCSU Endowment Fund and Board of Trustees will have a lot to answer for if they let the sale proceed when the board meets today.
Ron Sutherland, Ph.D., of Durham is a conservation scientist with the Wildlands Network.