Feds Are Letting The Timber Harvest Targets Interfere With Protecting National Forest Ecology In NC, New Lawsuit Says

Carolina Public Press

Harvesting enough trees to meet federal timber targets nationally is inappropriately taking precedent over ecological considerations when the U.S. Forest Services sets goals for projects in national forests, including in North Carolina, according to a recent federal lawsuit from environmental groups.

Setting timber targets for the volume of lumber extracted from hundreds of thousands of acres within national forests is a long-held practice of the Forest Service.

However, an Southern Environmental Law Center lawsuit has challenged that approach, claiming timber targets violate federal law by ignoring the cumulative climate impacts of logging projects intended to meet those targets. The SELC is representing three plaintiffs, MountainTrue, the Chattooga Conservancy, and a private citizen.

Filed on Feb. 26, the lawsuit alleges that timber targets incentivize the Forest Service to cut carbon-dense mature and old-growth forests undermining the Biden administration’s effort to protect old-growth forests and fight climate change. The Forest Service’s failure to measure the direct, indirect and cumulative effects of timber targets is a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, the lawsuit says.

The legal action names three timber projects in three different states, including the Buck Project in the Nantahala National Forest in southwestern North Carolina. The timber project was approved in 2020 and will be implemented over the next several years.

The timber target suit is one of three lawsuits filed by the SELC in 2024. 

In January, the SELC, representing five environmental organizations, filed a federal lawsuit opposing the Southside timber project, also in the Nantahala National Forest in the far southwestern corner of North Carolina.

On April 18, a coalition of conservation groups sued the Forest Service over flaws in the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest Land Management Plan that puts endangered wildlife at risk. The lawsuit follows a Notice of Intent to Sue letter sent to the agency last year. 

What unites each suit is the allegation that the Forest Service has prioritized timber harvesting over all other values and uses within National Forests.

The timber target suit evolved from the examination of documents from a Freedom of Information Act request by the SELC related to litigation against the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia in 2018. 

Among the documents reviewed by the SELC was an internal email from a Forest Service biologist to a silviculturist indicating a timber harvest project paid for with Forest Service funds to improve wildlife habitat had “no benefit to wildlife.” Instead, the project was implemented “to meet timber targets.”

The email, coupled with other internal documents, said SELC attorney Patrick Hunter, is evidence that timber targets drive logging projects rather than each National Forest units’ land management plan. A land management plan is the principal document that guides the decision making of Forest Service managers within each National Forest unit, such as the Pisgah or Nantahala National Forest.

“What we found coming out of (the Chattahoochee) lawsuit was really eye opening,” Hunter said.

“I was really shocked at how significantly timber targets affect Forest Service decisions. The documents we’ve obtained indicate timber targets play a more important role in setting regional and unit targets than the forest plans.”

Federal timber targets

Each year the Department of Agriculture sets a national timber target which the Forest Service is required to meet by approving timber harvest projects and timber sales on public lands. The national target is divided among nine Forest Service regions, which allocate their target among Forest Service units within the region. 

Expressed in billions of board feet or hundred cubic feet, or ccfs, the national timber target was just under 6.5 million ccfs in fiscal year 2023. 1 ccf is slightly larger than a cord of wood, or a stack of firewood that is 4 feet high, 4 feet wide and 8 feet tall.

Hunter said the Forest Service isn’t consistent with disclosing timber targets. For example, reports for the first quarter of fiscal year 2024 don’t provide the targets.

The targets are developed based on multiple factors including limits in long-term management plans and the amount of timber available for sale in already-approved timber projects. Congress provides funding through the federal budget to reach the target and plan future timber projects.

In 2023, the final Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest Land Management outlined a range of strategies to manage the forest, including forest restoration goals, which also produce volume to fulfill timber targets. 

Understanding how timber targets shape project-level decisions can be very hard for even an engaged stakeholder, Hunter said. “The role of timber targets is never disclosed in the public discussion of project development even though those targets affect nearly every aspect of Forest Service decision making,” he said. 

Before the Forest Service authorizes a timber project the agency must complete an environmental analysis which is required by NEPA. Once a project is approved, the Forest Service unit may face a range of resource constraints in executing the timber projects, such as budget limits or staffing levels.

The timber volume authorized in each project is then divided into individual sales over multiple years. The volume sold in a specific fiscal year is credited to that unit’s yearly timber target.

The agency’s constraints push it to maximize the volume in its timber sales, which depend on each tree’s height and diameter, Hunter said. 

“The incentive to meet targets pushes them into harvesting bigger and older trees, which are often in mature or old growth forests that capture carbon,” he said.

Timber targets in the Buck Project

The lawsuit claims the Forest Service failed to analyze the cumulative impact of three timber projects, the Sumter National Forest in South Carolina, the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri and the Buck Project in North Carolina.

A connection exists between the Buck Project decision and setting timber targets, Hunter said.

The Buck Project includes 800 acres of timber harvesting in southwestern North Carolina, approved in May 2020. The Forest Service intends to sell timber in six separate timber sales over several years. As part of the approval process, the Forest Service selected from among five proposed alternatives.

MountainTrue biologist Josh Kelly said the project will fragment intact forests, introduce non-native species, disturb backcountry areas with roads, cause stream sedimentation and harm habitats of rare species while destroying older, biologically rich forests.

Carbon sequestration and climate concerns  were disregarded by the Forest Service, Kelly said. 

MountainTrue supported an alternative of the project that would have harvested about 600 acres of forest and created 2 miles of logging roads to extract timber, he said.

“The Forest Service ended up approving the alternative logging 795 acres and building 8 miles of road,” Kelly said.

“The additional 6 miles of road construction will have a lot of bad impacts. Additionally, we believe the additional timber harvest would have impacted carbon sequestration that should have been evaluated in the environmental analysis.”

In the Buck Project’s environmental assessment, the Forest Service concluded the project’s cumulative contribution to releasing carbon to the atmosphere is extremely small.

“Even though some management actions may in the near-term reduce total carbon stored below current levels, in the long term they may improve the overall capacity of the forest to sequester carbon,” the analysis said. 

The report added that the ability of forests to sequester carbon depends on their resilience to drought, fire or insect outbreaks, while “sustainable forestry practices can increase the ability of forests to sequester atmospheric carbon while enhancing other ecosystem services.”

The Forest Service didn’t complete a cumulative analysis on carbon impacts, Kelly said. 

NEPA requires government agencies to consider the incremental impact of an action, such as a logging project, when added to other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions. NEPA’s core goals is to promote meaningful public participation and to better inform government decisions. 

“That’s at the crux of our case,” Kelly said.

“They assert that the impacts of this individual project (are) ‘miniscule’ without looking at the cumulative impact of the timber target as a whole,” he said. “Cumulative impacts by definition include an analysis of more than just the proposed action.”

The Forest Service’s assertion that logging will increase carbon sequestration in the long-term is speculative, Kelly said. 

“Many of the forests selected for logging are very moist and at very low risk of stand-replacing wildfire,” he said. “The Forest Service is also ignoring the emissions from transportation and from the soil when making these assertions.”

Lang Hornthal of EcoForesters, a nonprofit forestry organization in Asheville, works with the Forest Service to help the agency meet planned restoration objectives. He said mitigating climate change will require sequestering carbon and improving forest health.

“There is no one size fits all solution and there are many places where cutting trees can benefit forest health,” Hornthal said.

“Forest management should consider all of the ecosystem services provided by trees and let that inform best practices for making forests better suited for the coming challenges brought on by climate change.”

Defense of the Forest Service

David Whitmire of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council told Carolina Public Press that the suggestion that national timber targets are the driver of projects rather than goals outlined in the forest plan to restore forests is misleading.

“For a decade the Forest Service said that ecological restoration of the forest was the priority,” he said. “The timber wars of the 1990s are over. This is a war on modern forestry. The Forest Service is not our enemy here, folks. The true victim is the wildlife that needs young forest and daylight.”

Whitmire is concerned that the lawsuits will undermine forest restoration objectives outlined in the Forest Plan, including the goals to create more early successional habitat, which are young forests, shrubs and grasslands.

“I’ve got a lot of emotion tied up in this thing,” he said. 

“Honestly, I feel like we’re being sued. The FWCC has put all our eggs in this forest plan. We’ve never had a document that we could literally put our finger on like this here.  We feel that this lawsuit is being used to push against this plan.”

However, Kelly said the intent of the suit is not to stop timber sales or logging in Western North Carolina’s National Forests. In their suit, MountainTrue and the other plaintiffs have asked that the Buck Project timber sales be placed on hold until completing an analysis of the project’s impact on carbon sequestration.

If their effort is successful, Kelly said, the Forest Service will have to do a cumulative analysis on the impact to carbon sequestration.

“In that case, the Forest Service will fully weigh the costs and benefits of the timber target and individual timber sales,” he said. “With a more balanced accounting they might choose the alternative that is less damaging.”

The Forest Service did not respond to requests for comment prior to publication of this article.

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