North Carolina State University (NCSU) is attempting to sell their Hofmann Forest, an extremely large tract of pine forests and pocosin wetlands located near Jacksonville, NC. At 79,000 acres, Hofmann Forest is the largest university-owned research forest in the world, and the largest state-owned property in North Carolina.
NCSU, acting in secret against the wishes of faculty, students, and alumni, has already signed a sale agreement with a corn farmer from Illinois, Jerry Walker. Shortly after the sale agreement was announced, Mr. Walker’s prospectus for potential investors was leaked to sale opponents. The prospectus reveals Walker’s plans to bulldoze 45,000 acres of pine forest into cornfields over the next 10 years, producing corn that would almost certainly be used to feed more of North Carolina’s immense herd of corporate-owned hogs. Also included in the prospectus are plans for a 9000-acre development project, including golf courses, strip malls, and thousands of homes.
Despite the sale agreement, it is not too late to stop the sale of Hofmann Forest. Crucially, NCSU failed to complete the environmental impact assessment that is required whenever a state agency attempts a project that will significantly damage the environment. A group of plaintiffs filed suit to block the sale (before the agreement was signed), and that lawsuit is now headed to the NC Court of Appeals. The NC Attorney General’s office is defending NCSU against the lawsuit, instead of protecting the public interest by forcing the university to comply with the law. We need your help to pressure the Attorney General, Roy Cooper, to do the right thing and block the sale.
NCSU has owned Hofmann Forest since 1977, when the land was transferred to the University Endowment Fund from its original owner, the nonprofit Forestry Foundation. The forest was originally purchased for the benefit of the NCSU College of Forestry by the College’s first Dean, Julius “Doc” Hofmann, all the way back in 1934. So this tract of land has been managed on behalf of NCSU for 80 years! Hofmann didn’t trust the University to own the forest directly, as he (correctly as it turns out) was worried they would try to sell it after he was gone. So he created the Forestry Foundation to hold the forest and use it as both a research and education facility and as a mechanism for financially supporting the College. But, in 1977, the local County tax offices were pressuring the Foundation to pay property taxes on the land, so the decision was made to transfer ownership to the NCSU Endowment Fund to make it state property.
Fast forward to 2008, which is when the Forestry Foundation was convinced to merge with the Pulp and Paper Foundation, creating the Natural Resources Foundation to support the renamed College of Natural Resources. Just a few years later, in early 2013 the NCSU Endowment Fund, with the blessing of the Natural Resources Foundation, voted to sell the forest. College and university leaders promised everyone all spring and summer last year that Hofmann would stay a working forest and that NCSU would retain access to the tract. These promises muted much of the opposition to the sale, especially from environmental groups, who figured that as long as Hofmann stayed a huge pine plantation, it didn’t matter whether the university or some timber company owned the land.
Unbeknownst to everyone, only a few timber companies were actually invited to bid on the tract, and they offered prices that were consistent with the land staying forest. Jerry Walker’s group, on the other hand, bid substantially more ($150 million). This may not have been just a coincidence, as NC’s corporate hog farming industry imports 200 million bushels/year of corn to feed the 9-10 million pigs that reside in the state, and they are desperate to find cheaper sources of feed. It just so happens that two prominent and wealthy hog farmers are on the NCSU Board of Trustees, and they would certainly have known about the potential benefits of converting Hofmann Forest into Hofmann Farms and Hofmann Estates (the sale agreement does promise to keep the name Hofmann, if little else!).
Ecological significance and impacts on threatened species
At almost 80,000 acres, Hofmann Forest is one of the largest tracts of public forest in North Carolina, exceeded only by a few federal properties such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the National Forests. As such, it provides substantial room to roam for numerous species, including a healthy population of black bears. Conservation scientists know that truly large protected areas are much more likely to retain viable populations of native species over time.
In addition to its sheer size, Hofmann Forest is even more important given its strategic location as a crossroads for habitat connectivity in Eastern North Carolina. Bears and other species that want to disperse up and down the coast almost certainly have to go through Hofmann Forest (see locator map). Habitat connectivity is also becoming more and more important as the climate warms and numerous species need to migrate to keep up with their preferred environmental niche.
Due to its history as a heavily managed pine forest, Hofmann is far from being a pristine tract of virgin woods laden with rare species. But as recently as 1999, Hofmann Forest was home to at least two colonies of red-cockaded woodpeckers. The rivers that flow out of Hofmann (did we mention there are three, the Trent, the New, and the White Oak?) are home to endangered species of sturgeon, and these fish would be greatly harmed by the dramatic loss of water quality that would follow conversion of the forest to cropfields and urban development.
Looking at the bigger picture, Hofmann is critical for the future of the red wolf, which is one of the most endangered wild canid species in the world, and at present is only found in the wild in eastern North Carolina. If red wolves are ever allowed to spread off of the Albemarle Peninsula (where they’ve been stuck since their reintroduction in 1987), the next point south where they could realistically establish another population would be the large complex of wildlands represented by Hofmann Forest, Croatan National Forest, and the Marine Corp Base at Camp Lejeune. If Hofmann Forest is destroyed, that will sever the connections between Croatan and Lejeune, dividing the area into pieces that are too small to support a healthy wolf population.
The same is true for the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, a large snake that is now extremely rare in North Carolina due to habitat loss, road mortality, and direct persecution. Already ranked as “State Endangered”, the species has recently been proposed for federal listing. The destruction of Hofmann Forest would essentially put the nail in the coffin for diamondback rattlesnakes in North Carolina.
On the other hand, if Hofmann Forest can be saved now, then we anticipate that much of the property could gradually be restored to better wildlife habitat over the decades to come, with NCSU students and faculty leading the way.