Point of View

'The Curious Case of the College Cash Cow' at NCSU

November 26, 2013 

The sale of the Hofmann Forest embroils my colleagues, alumni of a program in which I have taught since 1979 and current students of the College of Natural Resources in rancorous debate.

Some arguments pitch perceptions about greedy administrators against devotion to a “forest legacy” being abandoned. Having examined and taught forest history, historical ecology and impact assessment for several decades, I cautiously offer a few reminders about that legacy.

“Doc” Hofmann is a legendary hero to many associated with forestry at N.C. State. He obtained tax-delinquent land at bargain basement prices during the Great Depression. He set about paying off the debt with timber harvests. He also set about “improving the forest,” digging ditches, creating better access roads and establishing loblolly pine plantations. About 50,000 acres were converted from wetland wasteland into fiber-producing tree farms.

In the philosophical and policy framework of the day, these actions were legal. Hofmann demonstrated that taking an agricultural approach to forestry could make otherwise marginally useful land profitable for the long run. His demonstration was convincing enough that forest industry followed his scholarly lead. Millions of wetland acres across Eastern North Carolina and the Southeastern United States today have ditches and drains making pine plantation management possible.

The undeniable benefit of all that growing fiber in economic terms, in jobs and industrial strength is a point of pride associated with the Hofmann legacy. For various complicated reasons, however, economic returns from Hofmann Forest never benefited the college to the extent that managing similar ditched and drained forest lands benefited industrial owners. Past deans of the college correctly questioned why assets of tremendous financial value were performing so relatively poorly under our ownership.

One could ask whether indifferent fiscal management is a desirable forest legacy.

Why did International Paper systematically buy out its competitors and their land in Eastern North Carolina (Chesapeake, Union Camp, Federal Paper Board, Champion International) and then sell all the land to real estate investment trusts (REITS) and timber management investment organizations (TIMOS)? Have REITS and TIMOS converted all their ditched and drained land into subdivisions and shopping centers in Eastern North Carolina?

Obviously market forces and tax matters drive decisions, not to mention inherent risks of having all of your assets in one place susceptible to natural disasters.

Economics aside, other “legacy” results might be useful to examine. Opponents of the Hofmann sale point to habitats for bear and the Diamondback rattlesnake being at risk. Neither species is listed as endangered. But red-cockaded woodpeckers are listed as endangered. Managing the Hofmann Forest and those millions of acres of ditched and drained wetland forests in the Southeast carefully limits possible habitat for the birds. Pine plantations managed for economic benefit are never allowed to reach ages when the woodpeckers would create nesting colonies. So is managing against an otherwise naturally occurring species a desired legacy?

Ditched and drained lands in pine plantations probably do retain some, maybe most, functions of undisturbed wetlands. You could not prove it using research done on the Hofmann Forest. Again for complicated reasons, such research was not done there.

What we do know is that Hofmann’s leading forest industry to ditching and draining put companies on the wrong side of the debacle over wetland protection in the 1970s and 1980s. To this day the agriculture and forestry exemption to Section 404 of the Clean Water Act means no drained lands in ongoing forestry operations are counted as jurisdictional wetland. They disappeared from acreage reported in national wetland statistics. Claims by environmental activists that we have lost 50 percent of our wetlands are rooted in this “legacy.” Again, we don’t have research to dispute the magnitude of that loss in the Coastal Plain. But we do know the lands are so valuable because they are “prior converted.”

So the College of Natural Resources has been confronted with what I call “The Curious Case of the College Cash Cow.” Created under dubious circumstances, managed under a limited range of environmental values and leading to mixed results, the Hofmann Forest produced a legacy that one might want to embrace or reject. Economic and environmental values always get entangled, but with cash cows, milk yield typically matters most, and we chose to live with that legacy.

It may serve us all to remember that the legacy some want to protect is not viewed the same way by everyone.

Dr. Gary B. Blank is an associate professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at N.C. State University.

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