While North Carolina State University was defending a lawsuit over the proposed sale of Hofmann Forest, representatives of the university were busy renegotiating the terms of the sale agreement. Under the terms of the original contract, announced in late October 2013, the entire 79,000-acre forest would have been sold for $150 million to Jerry Walker of Walker Ag Group, an Illinois-based agriculture company. A spokesman for Hoffman Forest LLC, a North Carolina company Walker formed shortly after the forest was put up for sale, has stated that Walker purchased the property in order to diversify his investments and begin harvesting timber, not to expand his farming business as opponents feared.
Opponents of the sale were shocked by the announcement that an agreement had been reached, saying that they had been assured during court proceedings that no sale was in the works. The terms of the deal also made environmentalists uneasy because while the contract stated that Walker’s intent was to use the land only for timber harvest and farming, nothing in the document bound Walker to those uses. Additionally, the contract would not prevent Walker from turning around and immediately reselling the property to a third-party with whatever terms he wished. Though much of the land is swampy and not suitable for development, conservationists fear that the rest of the land could be cleared for agriculture and residential development, destroying large areas of habitat for native species. Professors in NCSU’s Forestry Department were concerned about gaining access to the forest in order to provide students with hands-on training.
A new sale agreement announced in early September 2014 addresses some of the concerns voiced by the sale’s opponents. Under the new agreement, Hofmann LLC will purchase 23,000 acres. The other 56,000 acres will go to timberland investment firm Resource Management Service, LLC. Foresters are pleased by the Alabama-based group’s involvement in the deal, citing a solid record of conservation efforts and a belief that RMS will be more motivated and able to create a sustainable working forest than a farming company. RMS has agreed to manage its sector as a working forest and ensure access for recreational and educational opportunities, particularly for NCSU forestry students. The new agreement also provides for a 400-acre county park and 500 acres of wetland mitigation zones.
The lawsuit to stop the sale is still going forward, despite the plaintiffs’ cautious optimism about the new arrangement. Like the old deal, the contract with RMS does nothing to ensure that Hofmann Forest will stay a working forest long-term. The World Resources Institute defines a “working forest” as “forests that are actively managed to generate revenue from multiple sources, including sustainably produced timber and other ecosystem services, and thus are not converted to other land uses such as residential development.” Durham conservationist Ron Sutherland, one of the plaintiffs, believes the best way to ensure that Hofmann Forest stays a working forest is to keep the land in public hands. Sutherland and his co-plaintiffs will soon find out if the North Carolina Court of Appeals agrees.