Reprinted from the Tideland News of Swansboro
MAYSVILLE — Nearly two years after its opening chapter, the Hofmann Forest sale saga is on hold.
N.C. State University, owner of the 79,000-acre research forest that straddles the Onslow-Jones county border, announced late Friday that it had pulled the plug on the controversial $131 million sale to Resource Management Service Inc., an Alabama-based timberland investment and management company, and Hofmann Forest LLC, a corporation formed by Illinois-based agribusiness owner Jerry Walker.
In a statement Friday, NCSU Chancellor Randy Woodson said the buyers couldn’t find financing in time to close the deal. He said the university foundation that technically owns the forest will continue to seek a buyer or buyers.
“The sole mission of the N.C. State Natural Resources Foundation is to benefit the College of Natural Resources, its students and its faculty, and the sale of Hofmann Forest has always been about that purpose,” Woodson said in the news release. “We will always strive to make strategic choices that provide the best educational opportunities for students.”
The announcement Friday was good news to a coalition of foresters and conservationists that has opposed the sale and fought it in court and in the media. But spokesmen for the group Save Hofmann Forest are well aware the battle over the woods that serve as the headwaters of the White Oak, New and Trent rivers is far from over.
“It’s just a reprieve, not a cancellation,” said Fred Cubbage, a forestry professor at NCSU and one of the leaders of the group. “We are happy to receive the reprieve, but suspect they will try to sell it for even much more than the $146 million appraised value now.”
Cubbage and other opponents went to court to try and stop the sale, claiming that the forest is state-owned and thus subject to a law that requires a study of the possible environmental effects of the sale. The case awaits a decision by the N.C. Supreme Court.
“Plus, they are spending a fortune in court trying to prove they are above any laws, and (that) we have no say, and environmental analyses should not be done,” Cubbage added. “What are they thinking? We definitely need to keep fighting, and will do so in court and with the public.”
The forest is used for research but mainly functioned as a timber farm, with the income going to support the college. When NCSU announced the sale in October 2013, officials said the timber income was far less than likely income from placing sale proceeds into investments.
The sale also continues to face regulatory issues, as two federal agencies have been investigating whether the university’s managers of the forest violated the Clean Water Act by illegally draining wetlands.
Officials from the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency with jurisdiction over wetlands, visited the forest in January to check the ditches after the N.C. Coastal Federation asked for records on ditching in the forest. In March, Mickey Sugg, with the Corps’ Wilmington District Office, said the investigation had determined that some of ditches appeared to have been dug illegally. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been trying to determine whether to take enforcement action.
Todd Miller, founder and executive director of the federation, said Monday that the environmental group continues to encourage the EPA and the Corps to investigate and resolve what appears to be extensive, unauthorized wetland conversion activities that have occurred within the forest in recent decades.
“It’s vital to resolve these issues so that current and future owners of this very wet property understand clearly its limitations for forestry, farming and development,” he said. “Hofmann Forest is the headwaters of three coastal rivers, and it’s critical that the wetlands in the forest are protected to ensure that these rivers stay healthy and productive.”
Ron Sutherland, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said he and the others want to continue that case, which contends that NCSU must perform a state environmental assessment before it can sell the forest. He hailed the termination of the sale as an opportunity.
Sutherland, a scientist with the Wildlands Network, believes Hofmann is not only crucial to the health of the rivers, but also a key factor in the survival of wildlife. It, he has said, serves as a critical link between the Croatan and other areas to the north and south.
“University leaders now have a window of opportunity to step back to the drawing board and do the right thing,” Sutherland said. “They can use an open process that works with the professors, students and locals who oppose a sale without proper protections on the forest’s use.”
Possibilities, Sutherland said, include selling a working forest easement on the entire property, using a combination of federal, state and private money to buy the development rights. That could allow the school to grow its endowment – the stated goal of the university – by $30 million to $50 million.
Another option, Sutherland said, would be to sell the land to the U.S. Forest Service as an addition to the nearby Croatan National Forest, increasing the size of that protected natural area by about 50 percent. The land would then be fully open to the public for all types of recreational opportunities, and the university could still negotiate for continued research and teaching access. He thinks numerous public and private entities, including the U.S. Department of Defense, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Forest Legacy Fund, state conservation funds and private philanthropies might contribute to the purchase price.