Established nearly 85 years ago as the School of Forestry, NC State’s College of Natural Resources is an integral part of the university’s past, as well as its future. Dean Mary Watzin recently celebrated her first year with the college and unveiled an ambitious long-term strategic plan.
The college has also been in the spotlight as the sale of Hofmann Forest moves forward. When complete, faculty and students will continue to have access to the forest for research purposes as well as a steady income of $6 million per year — nearly seven times the income generated from the forest last year. That income will be used to fund student scholarships and hire faculty for a college that is heavily engaged in many of North Carolina’s biggest economic sectors, such as tourism, recreation, wood products, agriculture and pulp and paper production.
CNR Dean Mary Watzin sat down with The Bulletin to discuss the future of her college.
Where does the College of Natural Resources stand now, and where is it poised to go in the future?
Watzin: We are a strong college. We have excellent faculty doing great things across all three of our departments. We think we can be more than what we are now. Our vision is to be the go-to place for solutions to natural resource challenges. We see our niche as the place where people come to develop innovative solutions for everything from forest and land management to conservation challenges to making sustainable products out of wood or any kind of renewable resource. We will also work in the urban environment supporting healthy communities and lifestyles through urban designs that merge recreation with resource management. As we look across the country, there are a lot of colleges of environment and natural resources that have really made a name for themselves by describing problems. We don’t think that is enough. We want to develop solutions to those problems. This is an institution where solutions are part of our DNA.
How is the college applying its forestry expertise to a more diversified set of economic sectors?
Watzin: We already serve three of the largest economic sectors in North Carolina. The forest products industry is still one of the largest sectors of the North Carolina economy. Tourism is the No. 1 service industry in the state. And there are more than half a million forest land owners. Our history has been focused on demonstrating the most economically viable ways to grow trees. We are incredibly well known for the work we have done developing tree stocks for loblolly pine plantations in particular. That’s a great platform to begin from. But in the future, forest land owners will need to get multiple benefits from their land. That’s where we can help.
In the old days, a lot of forestry was being able to look at a piece of land and estimate what its capacity might be for growing trees to go to market. Now, growing trees for the market is an incredibly important part of the base of economic viability for forest land owners, but they also need to layer other sources of income on top of that tree farming. A forest land owner can consider a piece of property as a place for recreation, for its value as a way to store carbon and provide clean fresh water. Water is going to be the natural resource issue of the coming decade. Even here in Raleigh, we know that the watershed and domestic fresh water supply are huge issues. The most economical way to provide fresh water is to manage the landscape so that water can continue to percolate into groundwater aquifers and we don’t have to clean it in huge, expensive ways or pipe water in from far, far away. Approaches that consider land management as part of a strategy to provide fresh water can be used to help communities all over the world.
How will the sale of the Hofmann Forest help you reach those goals?
Watzin: We manage the Hofmann as a working forest. There are more than 55,000 acres of loblolly pine plantation on the property. Because of the economic times we have right now, the income stream from the forest has really declined in recent years. Last year, we received $861,000 in income from the forest. Our current sales contract specifies that $150 million will be put into the college’s endowment. With a 4 percent yearly spending policy on endowment funds, the sale will yield us $6 million a year in perpetuity. That’s a huge permanent boost in income for our college.
To become the go-to place for natural resource solutions, we must continue to attract the best and brightest students, and that requires scholarships. We are particularly interested in providing more graduate school fellowships, which have declined in recent years with state budget cuts and reductions in federal funding. Bringing in graduate students is really the lifeblood of our research enterprise at NC State. Bright, creative minds give legs to faculty research programs.
In addition, we will make investments in new programs and new faculty positions to enhance the strengths we have in the college. We have faculty work groups now studying whether any areas of expertise are missing in our faculty. Any new positions would be funded by the income generated from the sale of the Hofmann Forest.
How will new faculty enhance CNR’s reputation, which is already strong?
Watzin: Our students come to be a part of the College of Natural Resources because of the reputation of our faculty and the great work they are doing. They are doing world-class research. Graduate students want to be a part of that. Undergraduates see outstanding teachers who draw them into their work. Our faculty and students are spending the majority of their time on campus and close to campus.
We also hope to improve our facilities here. It’s really phenomenal that we have an urban forest, Schenck Forest, so close to campus. Day in and day out, we do a lot of our field teaching there. We have 2,400 acres at Hill Forest outside Durham. We have great resources invested there in cabins and teaching centers for our summer camps for our forestry students and our fish, wildlife and conservation biology students. We need to continue to maintain and enhance those facilities. It’s those daily field activities that draw students to our academic programs. The quality of our programs, the quality of our faculty and the quality of our graduates are what determine the reputation of our college.
We have three themes in our strategic plan: sustainability solutions, land and water conservation and management, and maintaining healthy urban-rural interfaces. But a strategic plan without resources to make it happen is a fantasy. If we want to be the forestry program of the future and the parks, recreation and tourism program of the future and the forest biomaterials program of the future, we need resources to do that. We are taking a long, hard look at everything we are doing, and we know that the opportunity that the Hofmann sale will provide really allows us to become a world-class location for natural resource solutions.
What are the programs within CNR that will be at the forefront of research in the future?
Watzin: More and more, we have focused on linking programs together. In the past, we thought about tourism in isolation, conservation in isolation, tree growing and harvesting in isolation. Increasingly, we have to bring those together and look holistically at communities and landscapes to see the mosaic of activities that is going to create a healthy community, for people and for the ecosystem. One of the things we are working hardest on in this college is providing the tools that individuals, communities and government regulators need to make the tough choices that are part and parcel of sustainability solutions. There is no one magic answer to provide for a sustainable future. It is all about trade-offs based on what you value and what is important. People need help envisioning those kinds of scenarios. We have a fantastic center for earth observation where faculty and students can create 3-D landscapes that help people envision what those possibilities are. We have folks in our forest biomaterials lab who have gotten very good at life-cycle assessment, which helps us assess the cradle-to-grave environmental impact of manufacturing products. Those are some of the things that are just now in their infancy that we can help develop and put them in the hands of community and economic developers, industry folks and citizens.
The world is also looking at how we create healthier communities. That involves thinking about sports outside the stadium. How do we get sports and recreation into the daily lives of our communities? We also have many exciting projects using wood and paper products, including the sustainable use of cross-laminated wood for structural purposes. Our paper science and biomaterials group is looking at making all kinds of things out of cellulose, including cellulosic ethanol. There is a place for biofuels production and ethanol that doesn’t compete with food production. We are also looking at how to better utilize pulpwood, especially wood chips and wood pellets, as we have companies moving into the state focused on that. Our People First Tourism program is all about using tourism as a vehicle for economic and social development, helping communities thrive and grow. It provides tools that small tourism entrepreneurs can use to connect with tourists who might want to visit them and help generate the income they need to help keep their small, rural properties economically viable.