Save Hofmann Forest from being sold

July 11, 2013 

How many plots of 80,000 acres of forests are left in North Carolina? Surely the answer is not many, and it might be just one.

That is Hofmann Forest, purchased by and named after the late Julius Hofmann, N.C. State’s university’s first dean of forestry. It was to be and has been a resource for research in one of the country’s best colleges of Natural Resources. It should always be so.

Unfortunately, however, some university officials are rationalizing the intention to sell Hofmann through the Endowment Fund of N.C. State as a way to make some money and support the college for the future. That is a shortsighted and wrong-headed idea, and it speaks of high-ranking university officials spending too much time talking to one another and discussing ways to do the deal and virtually ignoring some faculty members and conservationists who have demonstrated passionate opposition to the sale.

Indeed, some 1,000 people have signed an online petition, a sizable number considering the issue has been fairly low on the radar.

There are in fact some problems with the way the deal’s being done. This is public property (the university might split hairs over ownership by a foundation versus the university, but that doesn’t matter), but the buyer who has made the offer has not been identified. The attitude of officials seems to be, who cares as long as we get the money? The property’s estimated value is about $120 million.

Why is identity an issue? Because the business interests of a buyer might offer a clue as to what that buyer might do with the property, even though NCSU officials say they’ll arrange for students and faculty to still have access to the land for research. That’s likely to be a temporary arrangement, however, should the buyer find a way to make a big profit on timber rights or development. It would be naive of the university to think that it can sell Hofmann to a private interest and that nothing will change.

Second, this property already generates about $2 million a year in income from pine tree harvests. That’s a pretty good return on an asset that also provides research opportunities for students.

And, if timber prices and real estate prices are somewhat low right now, why move ahead? University officials can call in consultants to guide them on deals such as this, but officials in academia are typically not experts on real estate transactions.

It is somewhat annoying when N.C. State officials hold the details of this deal in secret and convey an attitude that seems to say, “It’s our business and nobody else’s, and we’ll do the right thing.” Those officials, be they deans or a chancellor, work first for the people of North Carolina, who have a right to details, period. Period. It is insulting to them to operate behind closed doors, and this way of doing business will not give the university’s leaders credibility when the deal is done.

But it should not be done. Some, in fact more than some, in the university community have raised valid objections to this sale, and they deserve to be heard and respected. Once leaders start a ball rolling on something like this, they’re reluctant to back down in acknowledgment that perhaps their initial decision was misguided. But, in fact, admitting that perhaps a first decision was wrong reflects strength, not weakness, in a leader.

And NCSU Chancellor Randy Woodson could demonstrate, in halting this process, that he has listened to credible faculty members and others and in the course of this can hold on to a valuable asset. It could, after all, be sold at some later point. But once it’s gone, it is lost.

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