N.C. State University’s College of Natural Resources announced Tuesday that it revised the Hofmann Forest sales agreement to “enhance sustainable forestry operations.”
Under the new deal, the 80,000-acre forest will be split between two buyers. The original buyer, Hofmann Forest LLC, will purchase 23,000 acres of the property for $9.15 million. Resource Management Services, Inc. (RMS), a privately held timber investment management organization, will buy the remaining 56,000 acres for $130.85 million, bringing the total sale price to $140 million, ten million dollars less than originally negotiated.
Mary Watzin, dean of the University’s College of Natural Resources, states in a letter announcing the new sales terms that RMS is a “leader in sustainable forestry practices.”
“I am pleased with this development as the inclusion of RMS reinforces our commitment to work with a buyer that will sustainably manage the property as a working forest,” Watzin wrote. “Both buyers will also continue to provide access to the property for N.C. State students and researchers.”
But environmentalists— including a coalition of professors, foresters, landowners and conservationists that has a brought a lawsuit against the forest’s owners to stop the sale—say they are not ready to endorse the new agreement.
Ron Sutherland, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and conservation scientist for the Wildlands Network, agrees that RMS “is a relatively good conservation partner” and thinks that most of the 56,000 acres the company is to purchase will remain forest for the length of its investment period.
“But nothing is stopping RMS from selling any of it to whoever they want to,” Sutherland said. “They can keep the land for ten or 25 years and then turn around and sell to (Hofmann LLC’s Illinois agri-businessman) Jerry Walker for a $500 thousand finder’s fee.”
Sutherland says the coalition won’t be happy until there is permanent protection in place for the forest, in the form of an easement package or, preferably, if ownership of the forest is somehow allowed to remain public. He says there appears to be no guarantee in the new sales deal that parts, or all of the forest, won’t be converted for development or farming.
“N.C. State is making a sale they know has significant potential for massive environmental damage,” Sutherland said. “They have to comply with a provision in North Carolina’s constitution which says conservation is a state policy and to sully the land without protection is against that policy.”
This is why, he says, the coalition’s lawsuit to stop the sale—which is currently pending in the state Court of Appeals— still applies.
“We suspect that this deal may in part be a loosely disguised ploy to try to make it seem like things are fine now, the conservationists got what they wanted and the lawsuit is a moot point, hoping the Court will dismiss the case,” Sutherland said.
“Nothing could be further from the truth.”