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Hofmann Forest in Hands of the Court

Reprinted from the Tideland News

The fate of the Hofmann Forest in Onslow and Jones counties is now firmly in the hands of the court system.

Opponents of N.C. State University’s $150 million sale of the 79,000-acre research farm to an Illinois agricultural firm filed their briefs July 18 in response to the university’s claim that the sale, which was to have been concluded by June 30, should not be subject to review under the state Environmental Policy Act.

Ron Sutherland

“We’re asking for expedited review, (and we’re) not sure how long it will take to get to a decision, and we don’t know if they will schedule a hearing or just decide it on their own,” said Ron Sutherland, a conservation scientist at Wildlands Network and one of the sale opponents who filed the original suit last year. “The closing deadline of June 30 came and went with no apparent action from NCSU, which is a huge moral victory for us.”

The legal activity by opponents was a continuation of a process that began last year when the sale opponents filed suit to force the university to study the possible environmental effects of the sale under state law. A Wake County Superior Court judge granted a motion by the university foundation board to dismiss the suit.

The plaintiffs appealed. They were led by Sutherland; Fred Cubbage, a N.C. State forestry professor; and John Eddy, a property owner and environmentalist in Jones County.

Earlier this month, the state filed its briefs in the appeal and contended, among other things, that the plaintiffs do not have legal “standing” because they have failed to show how they might be injured by the sale. “The potential injuries theorized by Plaintiff-Appellants represent generalized fears based on speculation, rather than fact,” the state notes in its court filings.

In his response, however, James Conner, the plaintiff’s attorney, argues that the state Constitution, which expresses the will of the people, mandates North Carolina to conserve, protect and preserve forests. The Hofmann is a biological corridor and ecological reserve that encompassed the headwaters of three waterways: Trent, New and White Oak.

James Conner

“Sale of a minor piece of state-owned forest might not violate the constitution,” Conner wrote. “But the Hofmann Forest is, by itself, half the size of the entire state park system…” he added. “If the … sale of this particular forest would not violate the constitutional mandate that the state ‘conserve and protect its land and waters’ and ‘preserve as a part of the common heritage of this state its forests,’ then those terms of the constitution have no significant meaning.”

Concurrent with the legal battle, Hofmann sale opponents have been active on the public relations front and have launched a new petition the MoveOn.org web site.

The opponents of the sale believe the buyer would convert much of the land to agricultural use or develop it for commercial or residential uses. The university and buyer have said there are no plans for those uses, but opponents have cited a “buyer’s prospective” that specifically mentions them.

The Army Corps of Engineers has officially determined that some wetlands ditching activity in the forest did not meet federal criteria for an exemption and was done without a permit. It has forwarded that information to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regional office in Atlanta. EPA officials have acknowledged their investigation is underway but have otherwise declined to comment.

About the Author

Brad Rich

Brad Rich is a reporter for the Carteret County News-Times in Morehead City. He has written about fishery and environmental issues along the central North Carolina coast for 35 years. He lives in Hubert with his wife, Gwen.