Two American states are in the news this week with big moves in timberland management.
North Carolina State University (NCSU) plans to sell most of the Hofman Forest to a company that specializes in sustainable timber management.
Multiple media outlets reported Thursday that the Resource Management Service of Alabama, a Timber Investment Management Organization (or TIMO), will buy about 56,000 acres near Jacksonville, NC.
The originally announced buyer, Hofmann Forest LLC, plans to buy the remaining 23,000 acres.
The university said the agreement reinforces it’s commitment to keep Hofmann a working forest with continued access for N.C. State students and researchers.
The 79,000-acre Hofmann Forest spans Onslow and Jones counties and has been used for research and education for the benefit of the NCSU College of Natural Resources.
It was purchased by the North Carolina Forestry Foundation, later named the Natural Resources Foundation, in 1934; and in 1977 the foundation gifted the land to the N.C. State Endowment Fund.
Proceeds from the sale will be placed in the endowment.
The pending sale would not affect existing zoning of the property, which permits for timber and agriculture purposes; the preservation of two existing wetland mitigation banks; or the existing lease for Onslow County’s Deppe Park.
North Carolina State also agreed to cut the original price of US$150 million by US$19 million, but the new terms could eventually reap an additional US$9 million if the buyers are able to negotiate a deal to sell training rights on and over the forest to the US military or to sell protection rights to a conservation group.
In announcing the original deal, university officials said they were selling the land because it wasn’t yielding enough income and wasn’t used much for research anymore (repeated below). The investments should generate about US$5.5 million a year for operations of the College of Natural Resources, they say, which could help compensate for repeated cuts in state funding in recent years. The school has said it wanted to sell the land because it was not generating enough revenue and was not being used very much anymore for research. It had been producing about US$2 million a year from timber sales, but in 2012 that dipped to less than US$900,000.
Opponents of the sale say that the university has underplayed the land’s value for research and that if better-managed, it could yield steadier income. They also say it plays a host of vital environmental roles.
A lawsuit to block the sale is pending a decision in the state Court of Appeals. It alleges the university should have done an environmental impact statement, and include explicit protections for forest land. A decision is expected in the coming weeks.
The sale of Hofmann has been brewing for more than 18 months. The university wants to turn the forest, which has been a research site and produced revenue from timber sales, into cash that can then produce interest and investment income to support the College of Natural Resources.
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University officials rightly point out that funding from the General Assembly has been inadequate and that they must support research and academic efforts. Hofmann, they say, could still be used as a research site after the sale.
Resource Management Service (RMS) manages about 230,000 acres of timber in North Carolina and about 2.6 million acres in the Southeast, said Ed Sweeten, the company’s executive vice president, to the News Observer.
It already works with NCSU on forestry research and not only plans to continue allowing research in Hofmann but hopes to expand it.
Hofmann LLC, said Stephanie Spiros Walker of the company’s heading family, was still trying to figure out the best way to use the land it would be left with in the deal, but that its plans include exploring the development of a tract along US highway 17 near Jacksonville and continuing the current use of the 1,500 acres of existing farmland.
Ron Sutherland, one of the leaders of the opposition effort, said it would go a long way to solving the problems with the deal if the military insisted on permanent protections for the working forest, though development along the highway would still be a downside because it could block the movement of wildlife, including bears.
The new deal was signed September 2. Officials expect a closing on or before November 17, after due diligence is completed and a two-week closing period. It’s unclear whether the EPA investigation will be complete, but the new contract includes wording to allow for that contingency, according to the News Observer.
Elsewhere, in August F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber in Columbia Falls, the oldest family owned sawmill in Montana, announced cutbacks in production and layoffs despite a rebounding economy and favourable market for logs, said the Flathead Beacon Tuesday. Company officials cited the ongoing lack of available log supply and blamed environmental groups that persistently sued over timber sales and halted harvests across western Montana.
Last month US District Court Judge Donald Molloy ruled in favour of environmental groups opposed to logging in grizzly bear habitat on the Stillwater State Forest, a 93,000-acre postage stamp of land near Olney where six separate timber sales were proposed.
Montana’s timber industry has downsized considerably in the last 40 years. Lumber production across the state, meaning the trees that went through sawmills and other facilities, has dropped from a record high of 1.6 billion board feet annually in 1986 to nearly 600 million last year. The number of sawmills across the state, from small operations to large facilities, has shrunk from 150 facilities to barely 30. The industry employment dropped from 10,695 workers in 1994 to barely 7,000 a year ago. The amount of timber harvested, meaning trees taken down from the forest, dropped from 1 billion board feet 30 years ago to less than 365 million last year.
The latest curtailment at Stoltze reignited a public tug-of-war over timber supply and wildlife habitat.
Indeed, the rise of environmental awareness has had a large impact on the industry, as protections have increased for embattled species and habitat while a greater emphasis has been placed on preserving public lands from industrialization.
Timber supply is hurting sawmills, Todd Morgan, director of Forest Industry Research at the BBER at UM, told the Flathead Beacon. Pointing to historic data, Morgan says lumber production is approaching a threshold where even more facilities might have to close in the coming years if something doesn’t change.
According to Morgan’s data, more timber dies each year across the state than is harvested. The latest data gathered by the BBER shows the average annual growth of timber in Montana was 280,366 thousand cubic feet (mcf) in 2012. The annual harvest was 100,000 mcf. The annual mortality, meaning the amount of trees that died due to bug kill or fires, was 542,527 mcf, according to the BBER.
“It’s not like we’re out of timber,” Morgan said.
Beetle kill is the large reason for high mortality in Montana’s forests, particularly among ponderosa and lodgepole pine stands, which cover western Montana.
The Flathead National Forest in fiscal year 2015 will sell roughly 32 million board feet of timber, according to agency officials. The recent average of saw timber output has been 22-23 million board feet.