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Lawsuit challenges Forest Service timber targets

A lawsuit argues that the U.S. Forest Service’s timber targets fail to take into account the billions of tons of carbon stored in trees. File photo A lawsuit argues that the U.S. Forest Service’s timber targets fail to take into account the billions of tons of carbon stored in trees. File photo

A lawsuit filed last month in a Washington, D.C., federal court alleges the U.S. Forest Service’s practice of setting “timber targets” puts the climate at risk, undermines the Biden administration’s climate goals and violates federal law. 

The suit was filed by The Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of two conservation groups, the Chattooga Conservancy (based in upstate South Carolina) and Asheville-based MountainTrue, as well as an individual in Missouri.  

SELC argues that the Forest Service failed to study properly the climate impacts of its timber targets and the logging projects designed to fulfill them. Each year, the Forest Service and Department of Agriculture set timber targets, which the Forest Service is required to meet through logging on public lands. In recent years, the national target has been set as high as 4 billion board feet — or enough lumber to circle the globe more than 30 times. The already high target is expected to increase in the coming years.  

The suit claims that those targets create backward incentives for the Forest Service, and since forests, including those on public lands, capture and store billions of tons of carbon, harvesting too much timber could have detrimental environmental impacts as that carbon is released all at once.

A joint press release sent out from the SELC, Chattooga Conservancy and MountainTrue argues that when carbon is released back into the atmosphere, it undermines the Biden administration’s efforts to protect old growth forests while fighting climate change. It specifically noted two of Biden’s executive orders it believes the timber targets work against. The first was announced in January 2021 and dealt with protecting public health and the environment and “restoring science” to tackle the climate crisis. It directed all executive departments and agencies to review and address policies put into place by the Trump administration that the Biden administration believed were exacerbating the climate crisis.

“Extreme weather events and other climate-related effects have harmed the health, safety, and security of the American people and have increased the urgency for combatting climate change and accelerating the transition toward a clean energy economy,” that executive order reads. “The world must be put on a sustainable climate pathway to protect Americans and the domestic economy from harmful climate impacts, and to create well-paying union jobs as part of the climate solution.”

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The second executive order was from April 2022 and dealt specifically with protecting woodlands by directing executive agencies and departments to focus on conservation of old-growth forests.

“Strengthening America’s forests, which are home to cherished expanses of mature and old-growth forests on Federal lands, is critical to the health, prosperity, and resilience of our communities — particularly in light of the threat of catastrophic wildfires,” that order reads. “Forests provide clean air and water, sustain the plant and animal life fundamental to combating the global climate and biodiversity crises, and hold special importance to Tribal Nations. We go to these special places to hike, camp, hunt, fish, and engage in recreation that revitalizes our souls and connects us to history and nature. Many local economies thrive because of these outdoor and forest management activities, including in the sustainable forest product sector.”

Internal Forest Service documents show that achieving timber targets is the agency’s “#1 priority.” According to agency staff, the need to meet timber targets impacts the Forest Service’s ability to provide “basic customer service for health and safety,” “keep trails opened and maintained,” and “respond to needs resulting from catastrophic events … in a timely manner.” In some instances, agency staff have used money meant for wildlife habitat improvement to fund projects designed to achieve timber targets, even if those projects had “no benefit to wildlife.” 

The suit claims that the current way timber targets are assessed directly contradicts that mission.

“Despite authorizing numerous timber projects each year to meet these targets, the Forest Service has never accounted for the aggregate carbon effects of actions taken to fulfill its timber targets,” it reads.

The suit claims that this is in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, enacted in 1969 “to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man.” Because carbon emissions and decreases in carbon storage are reasonably foreseeable effects of individual timber projects, it argues, the Forest Service typically includes some discussion of carbon effects for timber projects it approves with Environmental Impact Statements or Environmental Assessments.

“However, those analyses invariably fail to consider and disclose the aggregate effects of other similar logging projects. Instead, the agency isolates each individual project’s carbon effects and weighs them against regional, national and global carbon emissions,” the suit reads. “It then dismisses the siloed effects of individual logging projects as ‘miniscule’ or ‘imperceptibly small’ drops in the bucket but never considers the effect of the full bucket of projects authorized to achieve timber targets. This too violates the National Environmental Policy Act.”

The suit also states that 83.3% of all Forest Service projects, including non-timber projects, are authorized with a “categorical exclusion.” 

“Yet the agency has never considered the aggregate effects of its numerous categorically excluded timber projects, nor considered the cumulative carbon effects of those projects combined with timber projects approved with Environmental Assessments or Environmental Impact Statements,” it reads. “As a result, cumulatively significant carbon effects — effects that must be studied and disclosed to the public under the National Environmental Policy Act — are going unaccounted for every year.” 

Another procedural loophole that the suit says prioritizes cost-cutting over carbon considerations is fast-tracked projects.

“The need to meet volumetric targets also pushes the Forest Service to design timber sales that get the biggest ‘bang for the buck,’ often by greenlighting projects involving clearcut-style logging of older, bigger trees,” it reads. “In other words, timber targets drive the very types of harvest that cause the greatest harm to Forest Advocates’ interests and result in high carbon emissions.”

Ultimately, it claims that the mandated targets create backwards incentives for the Forest Service. Forests on public lands provide a key climate solution by capturing and storing billions of tons of carbon. But rising timber targets push the agency to clearcut forests and log carbon-dense mature and old-growth forests. Logging these forests releases most of their carbon back to the atmosphere, worsening the climate crisis.

The press release notes that despite their significant and long-lasting impacts on our climate and forests, the Forest Service has never assessed or disclosed the climate consequences of its timber target decisions. In that release, leaders from the plaintiff organizations make that clear.

“Our national forests offer a simple, straightforward, and cost-effective climate solution,” Patrick Hunter, Managing Attorney for SELC’s Asheville office, said. “But these incredible areas are routinely logged to achieve crude, destructive timber targets. The agency’s single-minded pursuit of these targets threatens almost every value that people cherish about our national forests, puts the climate at risk, and violates federal law.”

Chattooga Conservancy Executive Director Nicole Hayler noted that the pursuit of fulfilling timber targets results in carbon emissions equivalent to burning “billions of pounds of coal.” 

“Federal agencies like the Forest Service should be leading the way in the fight against climate change, not releasing tens of millions of tons of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere while degrading some of our most immediate and effective climate solutions — our national forests.,” she said.

Josh Kelly, public lands biologist at MountainTrue, argued that the requirement to meet timber targets also has an adverse impact on water quality, recreation and wildlife, all while distracting officials from “more pressing tasks” like preventing wildfires, saving trees from invasive pests and controlling invasive plant species.

“If the agency is going to prioritize timber targets above the other benefits of National Forests, it needs to forthrightly disclose the consequences of that decision, particularly on our climate,” he said.

Ultimately, the suit seeks a declaration that three specific projects, including Nantahala National Forest’s Buck Project, violates the NEPA. Further, it asks that the court prevents the Forest Service from offering further timber sales to fulfill its fiscal year 2024 timber targets for certain regions, including the Nantahala National Forest, other than harvests necessary to mitigate wildfire risks. It also asks to stall the implementation of the remaining commercial timber-harvest portions of the White Pine Management, Buck, and Forest Health Initiative Projects until the agency complies with the National Environmental Policy Act.

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