Point of View

Sustaining a university forest is difficult given land values but necessary

December 4, 2013 

I’m a Duke professor and teach forestry, ecology and soil science. Given my line of work, I’m not happy about the state of the Hofmann Forest.

In years’ past, I’ve taken class field trips to Hofmann Forest to learn about natural history and land management. Field-based education brings dividends not found in classrooms. The most popular course I teach travels across the Carolinas seeking out land managers like those at the Hofmann who talk to us outdoors about their work with the land.

In a book I’m writing about 20 years of student field trips is a photo of Duke students in the Hofmann Forest wetlands.

This fall, we scheduled another trip to Hofmann Forest, but it was canceled due to the impending sale. Instead, in a Durham classroom, we read about Hofmann Forest, about how NCSU is engaged in a land deal for major financial gain and about how the potential sale is dividing the university.

The most important question raised by sale is, how can a university forest be sustained in an era of rising land prices? Although the nation’s approximately 50 university forests are variously organized, most derive values from environmental education, research and demonstration. Part of the job of university administrators is to fairly weigh these nonmarket values against the financial values of the land. The sale of Hofmann clearly exposes the vulnerability of university forests in contemporary America.

Events surrounding the Hofmann sale parallel those arising from a proposed sale of Duke Forest in the late 1980s. In “Pressure building to develop parts of Duke Forest,” The News & Observer in April 1987 described how a national team of real estate developers had been hired by high-level Duke administrators to consider the development potential of the Duke Forest. The team from the Urban Land Institute described in a 40-page report how the growth of the Research Triangle was making Duke Forest “strategically situated, where values of commercial, industrial, and residential lands have … tripled” and added that “the university should consider forming a real estate management team to ‘capitalize’ on its land holdings.”

Although many in the Duke community were appalled, the university seriously considered the report’s findings and even Duke’s Board of Trustees discussed it. Yet, the university was put on the defensive as opposition to a sale rose not only across the university but across Durham and Orange counties as well. The university backed away from the sale and in the meantime has learned much about managing a very special forest.

Remarkably, in the 25 years following the ULI report, the entire Duke community, including administrators, has worked to promote the forest’s educational, research and conservation values. A long, deliberative and sometimes difficult process has included overhauls of the forest management plan, land sales and purchases to consolidate core forest divisions, the certification of the forest’s management activities by two national organizations, the sale of the Haw River Division to create the Lower Haw River State Natural Area, annual meetings and educational events with local stakeholders and all of the day-to-day details involved in developing a university forest into a highly regarded teaching, research and demonstration facility.

And has it been worth it? More teaching and research activity have been based on the forest than at any time in the forest’s history. A steady stream of undergraduate and graduate students and faculty has enthusiastically worked in the forest, and the forest continues to contribute substantially to the quality of life in Durham and Orange counties. In 2008, on the anniversary of the forest’s founding, a book was published called “Duke Forest at 75: A Resource for All Seasons,” that states flatly that the forest has become a Duke institution much as Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Perkins Library and Duke Chapel.

If the Hofmann sale does not go through, NCSU as a whole needs to get serious about planning for the future Hofmann Forest. This will be long and complex work that will take decades to realize the Hofmann’s full financial and nonmarket values. However, as a field-base for education, research and demonstration, Hofmann Forest surely could be developed into a world-class attraction that itself promotes NCSU as one of the nation’s premier land-grant universities.

Daniel deB. Richter is a professor in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.

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