Yes, N.C. State University’s new plan for the sale of Hofmann Forest, the 79,000-acre tract near Jacksonville on North Carolina’s southeastern coast, is better than the old plan.
But it’s still not the best plan, even though a deal has been signed and the closing is slated for Nov. 17. If there remains a chance to reconsider, it should be done.
The sale of Hofmann – a forest put together by the late Julius Hofmann, first dean of the university’s then-College of Forestry – has been brewing for more than 18 months. The university wants to turn the forest, which has been a research site and produced revenue from timber sales, into cash that can then produce interest and investment income to support the College of Natural Resources.
University officials rightly say that funding from the General Assembly has been inadequate and that they must support research and academic efforts. Hofmann, they say, could still be used as a research site after the sale.
Unfortunately, though, there’s no guarantee of that. Buyers, no matter who they are, could run into problems that might necessitate selling off assets, even if those assets included a forest that is in an environmentally sensitive area and home to important species of wildlife.
Originally, the university planned to sell the forest to Hofmann Forest LLC, led by an Illinois farming family. Those who opposed the sale early on said they worried that the company would cut down trees for row crops and that the original deal included no protections for the forest. Then, a prospectus designed to draw partners into the deal was leaked, and it included talk of commercial development and more than 10,000 homes and touted the high soil quality should trees be removed. That inflamed opponents of the sale. Hofmann Forest LLC said that it was just preliminary and that plans had changed.
Now the university is looking at selling 56,000 acres to Alabama-based Resource Management Service, an investment company that buys land, manages timber production and replants. The company already manages 230,000 acres in North Carolina and says it would help the university enhance research in Hofmann.
This development has pleased some who despised the first deal. But 23,000 acres still would be sold to Hofmann Forest LLC. And the plans for that property would be virtually impossible to control or even to predict.
Also in the mix is the potential for income from a deal with the nearby Camp Lejeune Marine base, which would likely pay to continue to use the forest for aerial operations training.
The best plan for Hofmann’s future was voiced on the opposite page earlier this month by former Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker, long a conservationist and a respected attorney. Meeker believes the State of North Carolina or an “environmental group” should buy the forest and set it up for permanent conservation. Either the state or such a group could pay for the forest in installments and reap the benefit of selling those training rights to the military.
Meeker notes the money involved, now at roughly $130 million, would in installments be fairly small inside a state budget of $21 billion. The university would get money for its environmental departments, and the forest would be preserved.
If there is a way to produce more revenue and still preserve this forest as public or foundation or some kind of permanently protected property, then why mortgage it to an uncertain future?
The university’s latest plan, at least, reflects that officials have been listening a little, which they weren’t at all when the Hofmann sale first came to light. But they need to listen even more, starting with to Meeker, who has put forth a simple plan that ought to please everybody, except perhaps the buyers who want Hofmann for themselves.