RALEIGH — The buyer of N.C. State University’s vast Hofmann Forest near Jacksonville has no intention of cutting down timber to make way for cropland or development, a spokesman for the company says.
NCSU officials announced Tuesday that the board of trustees that oversees the university’s endowment fund had agreed to sell the 79,000-acre tract – which is dominated by a working pine forest – to Hofmann Forest LLC, which is led by Jerry Walker. Walker is also the managing partner of Walker AG, a family-owned multi-state farming company based in Illinois.
He and the other owners see the timber-farming operation as a great way to diversify their investments with a different kind of crop, wrote Tom Percival, a Lumberton-based spokesman for Hofmann Forest LLC, in response to emailed questions about the company’s intentions.
“Since a good portion of this property has been prior converted for tree farming, it makes for a very appealing future investment,” Percival wrote. “After all, timber is an agricultural crop and renewable resource that has been managed as such for numerous years on the Hofmann Forest.”
Timber sales from the forest had been generating about $2 million annually for the NCSU’s College of Natural Resources, but that had dipped to $861,000 last year. NCSU Chancellor Randy Woodson said he expects the investment income from the proceeds of the sale to be about $6 million annually. Most of that would go to support the College of Natural Resources.
The forest had long been used as an outdoor lab by forestry faculty and students. But university officials said the vast majority of research and teaching is now done elsewhere, including forests in the Triangle much closer to the main campus.
The contract for the deal says that Walker’s company wants to sell easements to the military so that troops can continue to use the property, or at least the airspace over it, as they long have for training. The military is interested in purchasing those rights for about 70,000 acres, it said. Such easements generally prevent development of the land involved.
Access for military, students
A spokesman for nearby Camp Lejeune confirmed Tuesday that the Marines are interested in easements to protect their ability to keep flying low-level training missions over the forest. They also may be interested in an agreement that would allow them to do training on the ground there, too.
The contract also says that the buyer intends to continue to allow access for NCSU faculty and students for research. It also intends to maintain a working forest there and to keep the Hofmann named attached to the forest, the contract says. The forest is named for the forestry department’s founding dean, J.V. Hofmann, who established it in 1934.
Opponents of the deal say that since it doesn’t include stipulations barring future development or farming, it still leaves the door open to environmental damage. The forest, among other things, provides valuable habitat for species such as black bear and eastern diamondback rattlesnake. Also, they say, development or farming there could harm sensitive watersheds in the area.
“I wish I could take the buyers at their word, but I don’t think anyone really expected they would have the bulldozers lined up and ready to do as soon as the ink is dry,” said Ron Sutherland, a conservation scientist with the Durham-based Wildlands Network. “They would wait awhile.”
Critics on campus
The deal has drawn opposition from students and faculty as well as off-campus foresters and conservationists. Sutherland and four others filed suit in Wake County Superior Court in September to block the sale. Their suit says that the state was required to consider public input and the potential environmental impact of selling the land, among other things.
A judge denied them a temporary restraining order to stop the sale after lawyers from the state Attorney General’s Office argued that the sale wasn’t imminent. Another hearing in the case is scheduled for Nov. 12.
Even if Walker’s company puts 70,000 acres under military easements, that still means nearly 10,000 acres could be developed, Sutherland said. And whether the company intends to farm there now or not, there is nothing in the sales contract to prevent them from doing so, or from building hog or poultry operations on the land, Sutherland said.
Sutherland said opponents plan to continue pursuing the suit, and that if anything the agreement for the sale probably strengthened their case, since it doesn’t include firm measures for protecting the environment.
“What they’d like, I’m sure, is for the lawsuit to go away, the media to die down, and then they can do whatever they want,” he said.
A hydrologist who is among the plaintiffs in the suit, NCSU Professor Emeritus James D. Gregory, said most of the land under the forest could easily be converted for farming, allowing the creation of a massive operation like the 57,000-acre Open Grounds Farm in nearby Carteret County.
That’s not the plan, though, according to the buyer’s spokesman.
Hofmann includes only about 1,500 acres of cropland now. It’s there as a firebreak to protect the forest, Percival wrote, and the company has no intention of clearing more of the timberland to expand it.