State should stop impending blunder of selling Hofmann Forest

09/03/2014 6:10 PM

09/04/2014 4:29 AM

The N.C. Court of Appeals has just heard arguments as to an environmental challenge to the sale of the Hofmann Forest. Regardless of the outcome of that challenge, the Hofmann Forest deserves a much better fate than what is now proposed.

Dr. Julius Hofmann came to North Carolina in 1929 as the first dean of the new College of Forestry at N.C. State University. By 1934 Dr. Hofmann had assembled over 78,000 acres of pocosins and forest land, which were donated to a forestry foundation for benefit of the university.

The early decades of the forest were marked by fires and chronic shortages of money. Indeed, bonds issued for the forest in 1940 were not paid off until 1983.

The forest has since been transferred to the N.C. State University Endowment Fund, which proposes to sell it to a Midwestern agribusiness group.

While there have been verbal assurances that the forest will remain as it is, a written prospectus circulated last year showed thousands of acres being developed commercially and tens of thousands being converted to farming. Both the university and the prospective buyer say the other is responsible for this plan!

Part of the motivation for the proposed sale appears related to the recent underfunding of the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources as well as the university system in general. Financial pressures have caused the university to consider alternatives for Dr. Hofmann’s legacy.

With a proposed purchase price of $150 million, the existing forest will at best provide to the buyer a very low rate of return on the planned investment and no return of capital. Regardless of what may be said today, development or resale of the forest in the future is a real threat.

Moreover, the EPA is already investigating improper drainage of wetlands in the forest. If true, this environmental violation would be most discouraging because the forest has been a primary source of clean water for the White Oak, Trent and New Rivers. This investigation as well as a pending legal appeal may well be the reason that the sale has been postponed yet again.

The answer to this impending blunder is for the State of North Carolina or an established environmental group to acquire the forest for permanent conservation as a working and research forest. The state could do this with an installment purchase over three to five years, part of which may be payable from air rights sold to the United States military as well as enrollment of parts of the forest in a wetlands reserve program.

This solution allows the university and its Forestry and Environmental Resources Department to receive compensation for the forest. It also guarantees to the residents of North Carolina that this outstanding resource will prosper in the years ahead.

The acquisition funds required are small in relationship to the $21 billion annual state budget. A small adjustment in revenues or expenses could fund this strategic investment.

Now is the time for North Carolina’s leadership – both executive and legislative – to call the university, the U.S. Marine Corps and our congressional delegation together to agree on a practical conservation plan. Our state has a chance to secure a strategic, long-term investment that will benefit us all.

The Hofmann Forest – let’s keep it like it is!

Charles Meeker was mayor of Raleigh from 2001 to 2011.

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