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N.C. State wants to sell its largest forest and invest the proceeds in Wall Street



Joe Hardison woke at 5 a.m. Monday, as he always does, and sat on his porch with his coffee and his cat. From his rocking chair, he looked over a dense pine forest and watched the horizon brighten.

Hardison, 77, has worked this land in Hofmann Forest for 58 years. His official title is Operations Mechanic, but he has fought fires, flown planes and logged timber. He recently helped rescue two hunters who were incidentally hurt (he insists they weren't attacked) by a black bear.

He lives with his wife, Hazel, in a two-story house, owned by the forest's managing foundation. His children and grandchildren grew up here. A grandchild even works for the forest.

But on Monday he acknowledged that soon he may be forced to leave.

"You do something all of your life, then it becomes your life," says Hardison, in a coastal accent. "No, I don't own ne'er acre of it, I don't own ne'er foot of it. I don't own this house I'm in. But when you put your sweat and your blood in it, hard times and good times... I would hate to see it get sold."

But that's what N.C. State University wants to do with the 80,000-acre forest, investing the proceeds in stocks.

Hardison could lose his job, his home and be disconnected from what amounts to his life's work. And yet his opposition to the sale isn't personal. Hardison believes the sale violates the founding principles of the forest. And like some professors, he doesn't believe a corporation can be trusted to manage the forest as sustainably as a public university.

Julius "Doc" Hofmann, the forest's namesake, purchased the land in 1934. He was at the forefront of a new wave in forestry and believed forests could be renewable and profitable. He was convinced he could turn the swampy, fire-prone area into a self-sustaining, high-yielding forest.

"Doc had a vision right on over the sunset," says Hardison, who worked with Hofmann, the first director of N.C. State's Forestry Division. "This place is nothing like it was before he got to it. It was nothing. Just a piece of land to hold the world together."

The Hofmann, as it is often called, is intensively harvested by logging companies. However, Hofmann established a nonprofit that controls the forest, the N.C. State Natural Resources Foundation. It donates all of its profits—about $2 million annually—to the N.C. State College of Natural Resources, and dictates that for every acre cut, an acre must be planted.

Hofmann was the first forest acquired by N.C. State. It also served as the first outdoor forestry lab for students. But because it is located on the coast, just a few miles north of Jacksonville, the Hofmann is used much less for research than in the past. A summer camp, for instance, was moved to a forest near Durham.

Mary Watzin, dean of the College of Natural Resources, says the Hofmann—which dwarfs the size of the college's other woodlands, the largest of which is less than 6,000 acres—is now worth more to the college as cash. She hopes to sell the property for $117 million and put the money into a stock portfolio, which she claims will double the current yearly net. It will also pay for more research and scholarships, she says.

But many college students and faculty strongly oppose the plan. An online petition to stop the sale had 458 signatures as of Tuesday.

"The decision to sell the Hofmann is a tragedy, which must be stopped," wrote Fred Cubbage, an N.C. State forestry professor. The sale "with no due process, no faculty, student, or community consideration for ephemeral gains perceptible only to a secret foundation and selected university administrators, would be the most hypocritical example of stewardship imaginable."

Hofmann isn't just turning in his grave, Hardison says. "He would tear out of his casket."

The foundation has traditionally been the only organization standing between the college and a sale, but its members voted unanimously in January to sell Hofmann Forest. According to the foundation's executive director David Ashcraft, 10 to 20 organizations are interested in buying the property.

A previous dean tried to sell the Hofmann several times, according to a history titled Hofmann Forest. Foundation members ultimately stripped the dean of voting rights on its board in order to weaken such future attempts.

This history goes on to state: "The premise was that a conflict of interest existed both with the dean's proposing and voting on principals beneficial to the school and, according to some viewpoints, at the expense of development of Hofmann Forest."

However, foundation bylaws were reversed again last year and Watzin's voting rights restored.

Hardison says the college "has always wanted more [out of Hofmann Forest] than what they were getting."

But Watzin says it's premature for students and staff, who haven't yet been offered a public forum to argue their case, to consider the sale bad policy. She wants to sell the Hofmann as a commercial, working forest, where students and staff can still conduct research.

"I also want to reassure you that any sale of the Hofmann will be consistent with the values of the College," Watzin wrote in an email to staff.

A private corporation and a public university sharing the same values? It's a difficult explanation to reconcile. A company in need of quick cash could clear-cut parts of the forest or even sell areas close to Jacksonville for development.

What the sale means for Joe Hardison and the Hofmann's six other employees is unclear. Foundation director Ashcraft says their future employment depends on who buys the forest.

Hardison has trouble believing that any company would stay true to Hofmann's vision. "Anybody's whose got the money to buy this place can do just about what he damn well pleases," says Hardison. "Who's to say what's going to happen once the ink dries?"

This article appeared in print with the headline "Money does grow on trees."

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