When Barny Bernard joined the Hofmann Forest board in 1999, a fellow forester warned him: “The college has wanted to get control of this forest for a long time. But just like Doc Hofmann said, ‘Don’t ever let the university get control of it.’”
Bernard is one in a long line of foresters who have managed the 80,000-acre woods or have served on its board of directors, the N.C. Forestry Foundation. The general forester consensus is that N.C. State, which owns Hofmann, should never sell it, and that its primary purpose is research and experimentation.
Yet in mid-April the board of directors, which no longer includes any foresters, voted unanimously in a closed-door meeting to approve the sale of the forest to an as-of-yet undisclosed buyer.
The 9-member board of trustees of N.C. State’s endowment fund, which is not scheduled to meet again until September, must approve the sale before it becomes final.
Foresters believe the College of Natural Resources considers the forest a financial asset with the primary role of adding to the bottom line. The foundation’s role, as foresters from the Hofmann saw it, was to prevent the college from exploiting the forest.
“This definitely would not have happened under the foundation, when I was part of it,” says Bernard, whose term expired in 2009. “We would not have even considered the concept of selling the forest.”
Hofmann Forest straddles Onslow and Jones counties on the coast. It represents roughly 80 percent of the College of Natural Resources’ assets. The land is valued at $120 million and generates $2 million annually from its pine tree harvesting operation. But the yearly profits would nearly double if the $120 million were invested in a stock portfolio, argues CNR Dean Mary Watzin, who has taken flak from many critics within the college.
“The forest is primarily a financial asset,” she says. “The financial return will allow us to do a lot of things we can’t currently do. My primary role as dean is to provide the best educational opportunities and portfolio of research to the college.”
Current foundation members elected to grant Watzin voting rights, last year. This is the first time a dean has been able to vote since the 1970s, when board members stripped the then-dean of voting rights after he tried several times, without the knowledge of fellow board members, to sell the forest.
“The board felt it was a conflict of interest in terms of having the dean as voting member,” says Butch Blanchard, who spent 20 years as head forester of Hofmann Forest and another 11 years as board member. “The college’s interest was primarily financial and not reinvestment in or development of the forest.”
Blanchard and Bernard, like many previous board members and the forest’s namesake Doc Hofmann, are licensed foresters—a title that allows them to oversee tree-farming operations. “When I came on, it was supposed to be maintained that the board was made up predominantly of foresters,” Bernard says.
In 2008, at least eight of the board’s 20 voting members were foresters. That year the board merged with the Pulp and Paper Foundation, which was under the College of Natural Resources.
“If you look at it from the college side, it made perfect sense for there to be one foundation within the college, instead of multiple foundations,” says Blanchard.
When the boards merged in 2008, it was “talked about and agreed upon that foresters would continue to have predominant membership on the board,” since Hofmann Forest was the biggest asset, says Bernard. But those principles weren’t written into the bylaws and Bernard never suspected they needed to be.
Both Blanchard and Bernard voted to merge the boards, but they now regret it.
When the foundations merged into the N.C. State Natural Resources Foundation, many of the foresters, as well as locals from the Hofmann Forest area, lost their seats on the board. As the terms of remaining foresters expired, they were replaced with corporate executives.
The foundation now includes a majority of executives from large paper and timber companies, many from out of state, as well as College of Natural Resources administrators.
In fact, many people have floated the idea of selling the forest in its nearly 80-year history. But each time the idea came up, according to Hofmann Forest, a history written about the land, “it was rejected out of hand because of the legacy of Doc Hofmann, not because it did not have potential benefits unto itself.”
Watzin says the foundation is remaining true to Hofmann’s legacy and that she hopes to preserve research access to the forest under its new ownership. “I don’t know how on earth the foundation’s interest and the college’s interest could not be wholly aligned,” Watzin says. “It’s not adversarial. It needs to be in synch.”
But that’s not enough to sell the 782 people, including many CNR faculty, who have signed a petition to stop the sale of the forest. Nor is it enough to pacify Blanchard and Bernard. Both say if the sale goes through, they will write the college out of their wills.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Money does grow on trees: Part 2.”