The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reached an agreement with N.C. State University’s endowment fund and its natural resources foundation over land management practices at the massive Hofmann Forest near Jacksonville, which may have violated the Clean Water Act.
As part of the settlement, the N.C. State Natural Resources Foundation, which manages the forest, agrees to plug some ditches to allow natural water flow on 120 acres of the 79,000-acre forest. It also agrees to update and enhance the water management plan for the entire property to ensure compliance with the Clean Water Act.
The agreement removes a cloud over the forest that allows the foundation to move forward with plans to increase its income from the property, which is now owned by the endowment fund. The natural resources foundation acquired the property in 1934 and still manages it for the benefit of the university’s College of Natural Resources.
Mary Watzin, the college’s dean, said the foundation couldn’t move ahead with timber sales or leases with the EPA’s review still under way.
“We’ve said we want to keep the property and maximize the benefits for the college,” Watzin said. “And we wanted to answer any questions that the EPA raised before we moved forward.”
The EPA’s review of Hofmann Forest dates back to early 2014, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers visited the property to check the ditches there after the N.C. Coastal Federation raised questions about compliance with federal regulations. Much of the forest is natural wetlands and is drained by ditches to make harvesting and planting possible.
Much of that ditching work predated the Clean Water Act of 1972, but the coastal federation suspected that some of it was more recent and might not be permitted under an exemption to the act that allows drainage for tree farming. Regulators for the Army Corps of Engineers said they found extensive draining by ditches, including some that appeared to be illegal.
In April 2014, the Corps turned the matter over to the EPA. At the time, the endowment fund was in the midst of selling the forest to a company headed by a large-scale farmer from the Midwest for $150 million.
The sale fell through in the fall of 2014, when the buyer couldn’t put together the financing. Last spring, the university announced that the endowment fund would keep the property and seek new ways to generate income from it, including selling rights to take over the timber farming that now dominates the forest and selling conservation easements on portions of the property.
The university said that the updated management plan for the forest will include a series of new water control structures and ditch plugs in areas north of U.S. 17, with the goal of keeping the forest as wet as possible.
“We agreed to do some additional water management to keep that property as wet as we could when we weren’t having to plant trees or cut trees or thin the forest,” Watzin said.
Todd Miller, executive director of the coastal federation, said he hadn’t seen the EPA settlement and couldn’t comment on it without knowing the details. But on the surface, he said, it sounds like a relatively small amount of wetlands were damaged by ditches dug after the Clean Water Act went into effect.
As for the university’s plans for the forest, Miller said he’s happy to see it remain as undeveloped as possible.
“Keeping this state-owned property a working, wetland forest is a good goal,” he said. “It is the headwaters of three coastal rivers. The Trent, White Oak and New rivers depend on these wetlands to stay healthy and productive.”