One of the fascinating parts of the debate over the Hofmann Forest sale has been listening to all the ways NCSU administrators have complained about Hofmann being a less-than-perfect resource for the university. It’s too far away, it’s a big pine plantation that nobody uses anymore and the kicker: It just doesn’t generate enough money to justify keeping it around any longer. For me this brings to mind a rather famous scene from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”:
Herbert (NCSU leaders): “But ... but I don’t like her!”
Father (sale opponents): “Don’t like her? What’s wrong with her? She’s beautiful, she’s rich, she’s got huge ... tracts of land!”
Huge tracts of land indeed! Hofmann remains the largest university forest in the world, and at 79,000 acres it is also the largest single tract of state-owned property in North Carolina. Surely this massive public asset did not deserve to be furtively sold to a corn farmer from out of state. I suppose sale opponents could be fairly accused of repeating the “no sale, no way” mantra without ever really presenting positive ideas for what should have been done with this forest instead.
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Well, you don’t need perfect hindsight to see that all NCSU’s College of Natural Resources had to do was build some modest level of consensus prior to deciding to sell. People first needed to agree on whether to sell the forest, and if the answer were yes, they needed to agree on the conditions. Nothing of the kind was attempted, unfortunately, and most of the tidbits of information that university leaders revealed about their “proprietary” sale process have turned out to be false.
A really useful approach would have been to conduct a transparent analysis to quantify how much a 79,000-acre forest is worth to a creative and forward-thinking university. Not just in terms of how it is being used now after years of intentional neglect in preparation for the sale, but how it could be used if NCSU leaders could ever look past the dollar signs in their eyes and see the forest the way “Doc” Hofmann did way back in 1934 when he bought the land.
College administrators could have sold a working forest conservation easement on the property and raised millions of dollars for the college endowment fund while keeping the land in university hands. They literally could have had their cake and eaten it, too. Instead, we have a scenario that can politely be called killing the goose that laid the golden eggs – except in this case they’re killing the goose because they’re hungry (thanks, N.C. legislature!), and they never knew what to do with the golden eggs of opportunity anyway.
How should we proceed given that a Hofmann sale agreement was signed last October? The most satisfying approach would be to simply call off the deal (which has yet to close) and return the deposit. Then the university could go back to square one and build a consensus answer as to what to do with Hofmann Forest. The public needs to be involved from the beginning, as it is our land, and the rivers that flow out of the forest run straight to some of our most cherished beaches. Ever heard of Emerald Isle?
If starting over just isn’t possible, there is a second approach: the “nuclear option.” Let the U.S. Forest Service condemn the land to create a new Hofmann Ranger District of Croatan National Forest, for example, and then everyone will get to enjoy the benefits from this incredible public resource for generations to come. NCSU could even sign agreements with the feds to allow long-term research and teaching opportunities to continue unabated.
Our MoveOn.org petition has gathered close to 10,000 signatures since it was started last month. Many citizens are strongly in favor of protecting Hofmann Forest and opening it back up to the public. Perhaps NCSU administrators should have known better than to try to build their financial castles on top of a wetland. Such things have a tendency to sink into the swamp!
Ron Sutherland, Ph.D., of Durham is a conservation scientist for Wildlands Network.