A crowd of nearly 40 people chanted and waived signs outside a meeting of N.C. State University trustees Wednesday to declare their opposition to the coming sale of Hofmann Forest.
While the demonstrators’ shouts were barely audible inside the Centennial Campus Alumni Center, their actions were duly noted by Board of Trustees members and officials on hand, including Chancellor Randy Woodson and Mary Watzin, dean of the College of Natural Resources.
“At this university, we are very conservation-minded,” Woodson said. “But at the end of the day, we have a responsibility to support our faculty and students. We are not the Department of Conservation.”
Hofmann Forest, an 80,000-acre research forest near Jacksonville, has been an asset of the university since 1934, when it was purchased by NCSU’s founding dean of forestry, Julius Hofmann. The university used the forest for research, education and as a source of income derived by growing pine trees for the commercial market.
But the pending sale is now necessary to provide increased financial support to NCSU’s College of Natural Resources, Woodson said.
“The state has not been funding the university as it has in the past, and if we want to continue to recruit and retain the best students and best faculty, it is our responsibility to work as hard as necessary,” Woodson said.
That includes the option of selling resources that are generating a less than optimal return – even if they have a long history and tradition within the university, the chancellor said.
‘We … hate to lose it’
“If we had been managing the forest strictly on fiduciary grounds, it would have been sold a long time ago,” Woodson added.
To the protesters, though, selling off the forest at a time when real estate and timber prices are low doesn’t make sense.
“We profess at the university that it’s possible to manage resources sustainably without compromising their value for future generations,” said Fred Cubbage, a professor in the College of Natural Resources who attended the protest. “And here we have a productive reserve of natural eco-systems managed sustainably at Hofmann Forest. We are proud of that and hate to lose it.”
Woodson noted that it is the board of the Endowment Fund of N.C. State, and not the Board of Trustees, that will eventually approve the sale.
Hundreds of students and faculty members have done research work and participated in educational seminars on the property through the years, although management of the property has been carried out by a private nonprofit, the Natural Resources Foundation. More than a thousand have signed an online petition protesting the sale.
In 1977, ownership was transferred to the Endowment Fund, which oversees financial gifts and property donated to the university.
Research would go on
The Natural Resources Foundation board voted in 2012 to consider selling the property if the right offer came along. An offer from a potential buyer was accepted in April, and the purchase is now under negotiation.
Watzin, the natural resources dean, said the sale will include several provisions intended to preserve the forest’s usefulness to the college, including maintaining it as a working forest and allowing university research to continue. Beyond that, the terms of the proposed sale have not been revealed.
“It’s an emotional issue, absolutely,” said the dean, as she stood outside the Alumni Center listening to the students, alumni and some faculty members engaged in the noisy vigil.
“But once we have our sales agreement in place and can explain the details, it’s my hope that people will understand.”