RALEIGH — With the clock ticking ever closer to the sale of N.C. State University’s massive Hofmann Forest, opponents of the deal have started a letter-writing campaign to persuade Attorney General Roy Cooper to switch sides in the fight and join them.
Cooper’s office has been providing attorneys to help the university defend itself against a lawsuit by environmentalists and others aimed at blocking the sale. But the opponents decided to target him with a persuasion campaign, in part because they have few other options after failing to change the mind of NCSU Chancellor Randy Woodson or to enlist the support of university trustees.
“The attorney general may be the only person in a position to put a stop to it, or to ask the university to comply with the law,” said Ron Sutherland, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and a conservation scientist with the Durham-based Wildlands Network. “He is also one of the only honorable people left at the top of state government, so we think we have a reasonable shot of getting him to re-evaluate this case.”
The sale is unpopular, Sutherland said, and it would make sense for Cooper, who is widely expected to run for governor in 2016, to get on the popular side of the issue.
‘It’s our job’
Various environmental groups were joining in, he said, and between that and his group’s mailing list they hoped to generate more than 2,000 letters.
They may not have any effect.
“This isn’t the kind of thing that’s usually swayed by letters or a protest,” said Cooper’s spokeswoman Noelle Talley. “It’s the duty of this office to represent state agencies, including universities, in legal matters. That’s what we do; it’s our job.”
Talley said the department had noticed the letters coming in and was aware of the campaign.
The 79,000-acre forest, in Jones and Onslow counties, is a working forest – essentially a tree farm – but also provides a vast swath of habitat for various creatures and is situated in the watersheds of three rivers. The land was acquired in the 1930s for research and to provide income for NCSU’s forestry program.
NCSU leaders say they want to sell it because the university is using other areas for most of its forestry research, and because reinvesting the $150 million in proceeds from the sale would yield $6 million a year to augment the university’s budget, which has taken repeated cuts in state funding in recent years.
The buyer, Hofmann Forest LLC, is headed by an executive of a major, family-owned agribusiness company in Illinois that operates large farms in several states. A spokesman for the group said it plans to continue farming timber and underwrite some of the costs by selling rights to the military to train over and in the forest. They also planned to continue to allow NCSU forestry researchers to continue to work there.
The opponents, though, say that for the huge purchase price to make sense the buyer must surely be planning to develop part of the land and convert much of the rest to farmland. They point to a prospectus circulated by the group early in its discussions with NCSU that said several thousand acres could be developed and that the soil was excellent for crops.
Opponents sued in September, a month before the deal was signed, in an effort to require the state, under its own environmental laws, to consider public input and the potential environmental impact of selling the land. The law was applicable, they said, because the state owned the land.
Another of the plaintiffs, Fred Cubbage, a professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at NCSU, said there is nothing in the sales contract to force the buyer to allow research, and there would be so many requirements that from a practical standpoint it would end faculty and student access to the forest.
The lawsuit puts Cooper’s office in a dilemma, Sutherland said: “Is it the role of the Attorney General’s Office to enforce the law, or to defend a state agency that is actually breaking the law?”
Among other things, NCSU’s attorneys contend that the law in question doesn’t apply because technically the land is not owned by the state.
A Wake County Superior Court judge agreed with the university, tossing out the suit Nov. 22.
It’s unclear when the sale will become final. The buyer and seller, NCSU’s endowment fund board, gave themselves until June 30 to handle matters such as due diligence. Fred Hartman, a spokesman for the university, said Monday that “The parties are working through those steps” and that he could not say anything more specific about the timing of the closing.
Attorney James L. Conner of Raleigh, who is representing the opponents, said Monday that it’s unclear what effect the closing would have on the sale but that he’s trying to make sure the state Court of Appeals considers the appeal before the sale is concluded.