N.C. State University has announced a new long-term plan for its 79,000-acre Hofmann Forest near Jacksonville that would leave most of the forest unchanged but could generate tens of millions of dollars by selling off various rights.
The plan is a major shift from the university’s controversial deal to sell the property for $131 million to a group that included timberland investors and agribusiness officials. Environmentalists filed suit trying to block the deal, but it ultimately fell apart last fall after two years of discussion and negotiations when the buyers couldn’t put together the financing in time to close.
The new plan includes exploring the sale of long-discussed rights to the Department of Defense to allow continued training on and over the forest. The plan also would sell rights to take over the timber farming that now dominates the uses of the forest, and it would seek funding from an environmental group for permanent conservation easements that would permanently protect a sensitive 18,000-acre section of “pocosin” or wetland.
The plan also calls for exploring the idea of selling off the current 1,600 acres of farmland for continued agricultural use and for exploring the idea of developing about 4,000 acres along U.S. 17 near Jacksonville.
All told, the plan, announced by the NCSU Endowment Fund on Tuesday, could leave up to 70,000 acres of the land essentially unchanged from the way it’s used now, according to NCSU officials. The plan has been approved by the Endowment Fund of N.C. State’s board of trustees, the school said.
Chancellor Randy Woodson said the new approach trades off a one-time windfall in return for the potential to see greater financial return over many years. The endowment fund could receive more than $125 million in coming years, officials said, and much more over the next several decades to fund new scholarships, research opportunities and faculty in the College of Natural Resources.
Documents related to the sale that fell through suggested that the military training easements alone could be worth $50 million.
“We believe this is the most responsible way to move forward,” Woodson said in a statement. “We learned a great deal during last year’s sales effort and in the process became aware of long-term opportunities that allow for greater control of the land, and ultimately more benefit to the College of Natural Resources, its students and faculty.”
Some who fought the sale called the new plan a big improvement and a pleasant surprise.
‘Great step forward’
“It’s a great step forward,” said Fred Cubbage, a professor of forestry at NCSU. “I think it’s a great decision. I think they’re basically on the right track.”
Cubbage said further steps could help ensure the forest is conserved in perpetuity, including a conservation easement on the forested land, rather than simply a deed with the timber company. He said he hopes that the university and the endowment fund consult faculty, conservation and other interests as they carry out the plan.
“It would be good to get those groups involved in a more open and transparent process of shaping the future of this forest,” Cubbage said.
Conservationist Ron Sutherland, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit to block the sale, said it’s not clear whether the public or university researchers will have access to the forested land and he worries about the possible development of land along U.S. 17 near Jacksonville, which acts as a wildlife corridor connecting the forest to Camp Lejeune.
But Sutherland is pleased with the broad strokes of the plan and the fact that the endowment fund has indicated it may bring on a “conservation entity” to manage the process.
“The only thing that would be better would be full-on public land with full faculty access,” he said.