Randy Woodson, chancellor of N.C. State University, arrived in his post after the wheels were in motion for the university to sell its 79,000-acre Hofmann Forest near Jacksonville. He now appears to have presided over a new plan for the future of the forest vastly superior to the old one.
The university’s plans to sell the forest fell through last fall after objections by faculty and conservationists and after buyers could not get the financing together in time to close. The sale would have gotten $131 million for NCSU, but the new long-term plan could mean much more.
And it will preserve the vast amount of the land for research in forestry, a field in which N.C. State is internationally recognized.
The new plan calls for selling rights to timber farming and exploring whether the U.S. Department of Defense wants to buy rights to train in and over the forest, which is near military bases.The university also would solicit environmental groups to acquire conservation easements to protect, forever, the 18,000 acres of wetlands in the forest.
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The university might sell some of the acreage for agricultural development and could look at developing several thousand acres along U.S. 17 near Jacksonville. But it’s estimated that perhaps 70,000 acres of the forest would remain unchanged.
In coming up with this strategy, announced last week by the Endowment Fund of the university’s Board of Trustees, N.C. State properly takes a long-range view.
“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,” Woodson said.
The Endowment Fund could, if educated speculation proves out, get as much as $125 million from the land, not for the land, in years ahead. That money would go to bolster scholarships and research in the College of Natural Resources.
Here is a case where delay, discussion and sometimes contentious confrontation worked to steer the outcome in the right direction.
On the right track
Fred Cubbage, a professor of forestry at NCSU, opposed the earlier plans for Hofmann. He called the new plan a “great step forward,” and while he remains in favor of protecting the conservation mission, he says the university is on the right track.
The forest was essentially created by Julius Hofmann, who arrived at N.C. State in 1929 and became a legendary professor and conservationist. Hofmann worked all his life with the belief that preservation of natural areas was a noble and essential mission.
When the sale of the forest came up, some proponents claimed that the university had not used the property much and that the money from the sale could go to more current academic endeavors. And there were developers who saw a lot of potential in what surely must be one of the largest undeveloped tracts of property in the state.
But those who argued that Hofmann ought to be viewed as a long-term asset were proved out in the end.
Even without selling the property, the university stands to gain millions of dollars. What a better arrangement that is. A sale would have netted one-time gains and the property would have been gone forever.
This deal represents foresight. It also demonstrates the value of contentious discussion and confrontation. The participants don’t enjoy it, but in the end it can produce a fruitful outcome best for all concerned.
Find notes of a meeting with NCSU Chancellor Randy Woodson and his thoughts about the Hofmann Forest plan online at newsobserver.com/opinion.