by Jane Porter
The potential buyer of the 80,000-acre Hofmann Forest remains a mystery, more than two weeks after the N.C. State Board of Trustees was scheduled to approve the sale.The forest, which is owned by N.C. State University’s Board of Trustees of the Endowment Fund, is the largest single tract of state-owned property. It is home to an abundance of rare wildlife and plants and serves as a research site for forestry and environmental studies students at N.C. State.
A coalition of professors, foresters, landowners and wildlife conservationists sued the Board of Trustees of the Endowment Fund of N.C. State and the North Carolina State Natural Resources Foundation Inc. to block the sale of Hofmann Forest.
As the INDY reported in May, the 16-member Natural Resources Foundation, which no longer has any foresters, voted in the spring to recommend a sale. Their recommendation was sent to the nine-member Board for the N.C. State Endowment Fund, which owns the land. It voted unanimously to approve the sale of the forest to an undisclosed buyer in a closed-door meeting. The board was slated to give final approval to the sale on Sept. 19.
But when the coalition’s request for a temporary restraining order on the sale was heard on Sept. 25, lawyers for the state argued that no contract exists for the sale of Hofmann Forest and a transaction is not pending.
Ron Sutherland, a plaintiff and conservation scientist for the Wildlands Network, says the lack of information is “frustrating.”
“There is a rumor about who the buyer is, but it isn’t confirmed, and we have no idea why they haven’t managed to seal the deal yet,” he says. “They said a sale is not imminent, but they may just be trying to get us off their backs.”
Sutherland says a lawsuit was the last resort. “We’ve tried everything we could, non-lawsuit related, to get the board’s attention, but they have been stubborn about not wanting to change their mind at all.
“Trying to sell the largest tract of land in North Carolina without public input is reason enough to file suit.”
The coalition’s complaint claims that the sale of Hofmann Forest violates the North Carolina Environmental Policy Act and will “prompt massive development on all land possible,” damaging not only to the environment but to species such the black bear and the endangered Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, among many others.
“We think we have a solid case under the Environmental Policy Act,” Sutherland says. “It may never have been used before, but this is the first time the state has tried to sell a large, environmentally significant tract of land. We think the state constitution applies clearly here as well.”
A judge recently denied a temporary restraining order to stop the sale, but a hearing on a motion for a preliminary injunction has been scheduled for the week of Nov. 12.
This story has been corrected to say the Natural Resources Foundation voted to recommend a sale, not the Endowment Fund.