RALEIGH — A group of foresters, academics, landowners and conservationists has sued the board of trustees of N.C. State University’s Endowment Fund to stop the sale of the 79,000-acre Hofmann Forest until a court can hear arguments over the legality of the deal.
The suit, filed in Wake County Superior Court, says the state is required to consider the potential environmental impacts of selling the land, to seek public input on the proposal and to conserve natural resources. It asks for a preliminary injunction that would prevent the sale of the land until it can be determined whether the state has met its obligations.
Believing the Endowment Fund board, along with the N.C. State Natural Resources Foundation, which manages Hofmann Forest, were about to sign a deal with an unknown buyer, opponents also sought a temporary restraining order that would have gone into effect immediately.
But in court this week, lawyers from state Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office, on behalf of the endowment fund and the foundation, said the sale was not imminent and a judge denied the request.
There has been no ruling yet on the more long-term injunction.
Just because there are no bulldozers poised to clear swaths of the forest for development doesn’t mean the endowment fund board isn’t ready to sign a deal as soon as all the details are worked out, said Fred Cubbage, a tenured professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at N.C. State and a plaintiff in the suit.
The board announced in the spring that it had a buyer for the property, and once the parties agree to terms, “They could rush off and sign a contract tomorrow, and it would be very hard to reverse at that point,” Cubbage said.
University spokesman Brad Bohlander said the university thinks the lawsuit is without merit.
“The private, non-profit Natural Resources Foundation Inc. and the Board of Trustees of the Endowment Fund of N.C. State University have followed all applicable laws, regulations and processes during deliberations regarding the potential sale of the Hofmann Forest,” Bohlander said in a statement.
Endowment Fund officials have had discussions for more than a year about the possible sale of Hofmann Forest, named for Julius “Doc” Hofmann, who was hired in 1929 to set up the forestry program at what was then N.C. State College of Agriculture and Engineering.
According to historical documents at the university, one of Hofmann’s immediate goals was to acquire forestland for laboratory, research and demonstration purposes. Unable to get funding from the university or the state, Hofmann and some of the college trustees incorporated the N.C. Forestry Foundation, which sold bonds to purchase forest land and then paid off the bonds with money earned by the sale of timber.
The first forest the foundation owned was about 75 acres in Wake County called Poole Woods, which it later sold.
That foundation later was folded into the Natural Resources Foundation, which manages Hofmann Forest, the largest single piece of land owned by the state – more than four times larger than South Mountains, the largest state park.
Hofmann Forest has been an educational resource, but it is also by the far the largest income producer for the foundation, the nonprofit that supports the university’s College of Natural Resources. The foundation relies on the sale of loblolly pine, as well as hunting leases and farming operations in Hofmann Forest, to pay for scholarships, fellowships and professorships within the college, and also to pay for the operation of the forest itself.
But timber sales have been lower than expected in recent years, and the foundation decided it could have a more stable source of income by selling Hofmann Forest and investing the proceeds – estimated at between $120 million and $150 million – in the financial markets. Estimates are that 20,000 to 30,000 acres of the land would be suitable for development. Much of the rest is wetland.
What opponents say
Opponents of the sale say the foundation and the trustees must look at Hofmann Forest as more than a source of income. Selling the land for development, they say, would take away a useful teaching and research tool; irreparably harm wildlife habitat, including that of black bears and an endangered rattlesnake; and degrade three important coastal waterways: the White Oak, Trent and New rivers.
Ron Sutherland, a conservation scientist for Wildlands Network in Durham and one of five plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the foundation and the Endowment Fund trustees are required to consider alternatives to selling the land. Those might include selling conservation easements on the property and investing that money instead, he said.