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Saving Hofmann Forest

Hofmann Forest comprises 79,000 acres of pine forest and wetlands in coastal North Carolina. North Carolina State University (NCSU) has owned this ecologically cherished land since the first Dean of the College of Forestry arranged to buy the property in 1934.

Aerial view of vast, green forest
Hofmann pocosin with cloud-dappled pines. Thanks to photographer J. Henry Fair for taking aerial images to support this campaign. Photo: J. Henry Fair

Hofmann Forest is the largest state-owned property in North Carolina, and the most extensive university research and teaching forest in the world. But in January 2013, NCSU administrators announced plans to sell the forest with few if any restrictions, claiming that the university could profit more from the sale than from ongoing sustainable timber management.

Map showing Hofmann Forest, adjacent protected areas, and kew wildlife connections

Wildlands Network’s Dr. Ron Sutherland, a conservation biologist who earned his undergraduate degree from NCSU, decided that something had to be done to stop this egregious sale. In addition to recognizing Hofmann Forest as an important resource for research and local recreation, Ron knew the property played an invaluable role as a core area connecting several adjacent wildlands—such as Croatan National Forest and the Holly Shelter Gamelands.

Science Meets Activism

To save Hofmann Forest, Wildlands Network partnered with a diverse coalition of foresters, hunters, fishermen, and environmentalists to create an effective grassroots advocacy campaign. The coalition’s first act was to stage a protest by “planting” 600 baby pine trees in front of the Chancellor’s house to represent a miniature version of Hofmann Forest. (photo)

Dozens of people gathered on a sidewalk with university buildings behind them. Protest signs read, "Save Hofmann Forest."
A peaceful protest on behalf of Hofmann Forest at North Carolina State University. Photo: Ron Sutherland

Ron helped organize numerous other protests, letter-writing campaigns, and petitions, along with scores of op-eds and letters to the editor. Wildlands Network also joined Dr. Fred Cubbage (former Chair of NCSU’s Department of Forestry) in a lawsuit to block the sale until proper environmental reviews had been conducted.

The potential buyer for Hofmann Forest was a corn farmer from Illinois. Wildlands Network received a leaked prospectus prepared by the farmer, showing that he was seeking investors to help fund the removal of 50,000 acres of trees to make way for industrial agriculture—along with the conversion of thousands of additional acres that would be converted to commercial use.

The Cubbage et al. lawsuit went all the way to the North Carolina Supreme Court, and was ultimately ruled moot when the buyer backed out of the sale agreement. In 2016, after continued vigilance by Save Hofmann Forest supporters, NCSU eventually announced that it would keep the land and instead sell a 50-year timber deed on the tract to Resource Management Service—a timber company with a good reputation for working with conservationists.

Coming Together for Wildness

Large black bear with grass in foreground
Black bears are among the many wild animals living in Hofmann Forest. Photo: William C. Gladish

Hofmann Forest currently stands as a remarkable and inspiring conservation victory for Wildlands Network and our many partners in this effort.

Although plans for the sale had already been negotiated behind closed doors when we first became involved, we were able to save the forest on behalf of the students and faculty of NCSU (who largely opposed the sale), the taxpayers who own the land, and especially the wild creatures who depend on large, unbroken tracts of forest to survive.

The victory is also a testament to the power of forming broad coalitions with seemingly unconventional partners. We will continue to work with a wide range of interests in North Carolina and elsewhere to protect wild places like Hofmann Forest.