University-owned forests are dedicated to the mission of training scientists in modern forestry, ecology and environmental management. Yale Forest, Harvard Forest and Duke Forest are prime among them, but all pale in comparison to the size and uniqueness of N.C. State Universitys Hofmann Forest.
Hofmann is the largest university forest in the United States by far and the only one with extensive natural and drained wetlands and large stores of carbon in trees and peat soils. That matchless resource is currently on the chopping block for sale for $150 million.
On the surface, this sale sounds like a great move for the school, since NCSU officials have said investing the proceeds could yield more money, and a more consistent stream of it, for the College of Natural Resources. So what is the problem if the school earns more money and students and faculty have better support from investments? Saving the forest for bears and rattlesnakes doesnt seem to make as much sense given the reported dire financial needs of the university. Moreover, the fact that Hofmann is now used mainly for timber production suggests its research and educational value is currently minimal.
These are good arguments for the sale if you are interested mainly in immediate financial rewards. Yet the immediate payout, which seems like a lot of money, really amounts only to a one-time payment of about $2,000 per acre, hardly a high value for productive coastal lands. Faced with the same issues Yale, Harvard and Duke overcame the urge to sell with some innovative thinking on the part of faculty and administration, competing for and obtaining millions of dollars in funding for long-term research on climate change and carbon projects, wetlands and restoration projects research possible because of the size and ecological integrity of the forests. These outdoor laboratory forests continue to provide the nation with vital information on the effects of elevated CO2 and global warming as well as invaluable ecosystem level research.
Cannibalizing irreplaceable school resources like the Hofmann Forests unique set of ecosystems would result in NCSU and the state losing the ability to foster new and innovative forestry research, environmental management techniques and educational activities. The potential for studies on climate change, carbon sequestration, water quality, ecohydrology and habitat diversity shifts that could be done in the next few centuries on such a vast ecosystem is limitless, but only if the land is available.
If NCSU loses control of the forest, the land is then opened up for large-scale development. These forested lands, when developed and drained, could fall victim to uncontrollable fires resembling those that took place in 2008 on the drained and unrestored peatlands in Pocosin Lakes, which burned off and released a volume of carbon nearly equal to the amount of carbon burned by all U.S. government vehicles for a year.
Moreover, the forest is a natural hydrologic sponge and water pump on the landscape, protecting downstream rivers and coastal ecosystems. Development of this land would remove this natural water-quality filter and, at the same time, add a large source of pollution, threatening regional water quality and quantity. Another lost opportunity concerns the ever-growing carbon market for forests and credits for carbon stored in the ground by preventing carbon losses and reducing greenhouse gas losses.
Losing control of this land means that any large-scale development will have serious consequences for carbon storage and lost revenue in the carbon market as soil carbon oxidation and tree removal will surely increase with almost any of the proposed activates.
Surely, the university and the Hofmann Foundation have a responsibility to the residents of the state to make sure that this vast tract of land does not become a large source of nutrient pollution and that the enormous stores of carbon are not burned off due to drainage, development or misuse by the military. With a little innovative thinking, a larger, more long-term money stream could be developed that sustains the forest, maintains its ecosystem services on the landscape and provides research and teaching opportunities for generations to come.
As the saying goes, they are not making any more land. We would all be diminished by the forests demise.
Curtis J. Richardson is director of Duke University Wetland Center in the Nicholas School of the Environment .