New Lawsuit on Timber Targets by SELC: Is More NEPA the Answer?


In this post, I’ll focus on the lawsuit itself. In the next post, we can talk about the more generic question of “are timber targets of utility, should they be replaced, and if so, by what?” The press release by SELC raised many questions, and hopefully others will know the answers.

A new lawsuit alleges the U.S. Forest Service’s practice of setting ‘timber targets’ puts the climate at risk, undermines the Biden administration’s important climate goals, and violates federal law.

Back in 2018, we had a post on TSW about timber targets and how they’re set. Mac McConnell described the process in this comment. Maybe someone else could flesh Mac’s comment out more, or write a post on it?

The case centers around the Forest Service’s failure to properly study the massive environmental and climate impacts of its timber targets and the logging projects it designs 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.

I’m not sure why that would be. Perhaps more fuel treatments projected due to the 10-year action plan? But those are not really “about” timber.

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 and undermining the Biden administration’s important efforts to protect old growth and fight climate change.

I’ve got two problems with this.. first, the targets don’t seem to be rising,  and second, the only clearcuts I’ve seen recently have been in MPB-susceptible old lodgepole.  And I guess the carbon question there is… the trees are gonna die, is it better to turn them into longer-lived wood products, or what.. burn them? Leave them to decay slowly until burned?  This is one of those cases in which specifics, and specific alternatives to the maligned practice, would be helpful. It’s almost as if these  MOG-ish carbon assumptions assume.. wildfire is not a thing.  At the same time, we are told that wildfires are getting worse due to climate change (Sierra Club- catastrophic), and our insurance premiums need to be adjusted to reflect that. Also the puzzling idea that carbon offsets are bad because trees will die; leaving them alone for carbon is good because… trees won’t die? To be fair, these are not SELC positions as far as I know.  At the same time, the idea that trees will not die or get burned up does seem to be part of this press release.

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 requirement to meet timber targets results in adverse impacts on water quality, recreation, and imperiled wildlife, while distracting the Forest Service from more pressing tasks that don’t produce high timber volumes 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,” said Josh Kelly, Public Lands Biologist at MountainTrue.

Perhaps Sam Evans can help here, but when I signed on to the link, there were many files, so I couldn’t find the one that said that meeting timber targets was the agency’s #1 priority.  And I’m fairly dubious about that claim, since fire suppression and the 10-year wildfire action plan, and remember this about Fire consuming the FS budget..  Also, if we take Chief Moore’s word for it last year, he said:

The FY24 budget request focuses on three primary areas that impact the Forest Service: modernizing the wildland fire management system, combating climate change and confronting the wildfire crisis, and ensuring equitable access to the benefits of the National Forest System.

I remember a quote along the lines of  “to find the real policy, don’t listen to what they say, look at the budget.” Maybe someone remembers the real quote on that, and who said it originally? But back to SELC:

The Forest Service’s refusal to take a hard look at the direct, indirect, and cumulative effects of its timber target decisions is a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, our nation’s bedrock environmental law.

It almost sounds to me like a request for a national programmatic on the timber program as a whole.  Which is interesting, but could be asked of any program (recreation impacts on climate from people driving to national forests?); or how about a national programmatic on fire suppression or prescribed fire?  Then we could have litigation on (1) the programmatic, (2) the forest plan and (3) any timber project – all at the same time. I’m not sure who this benefits. I don’t think it’s taxpayers.

Also, I’m not sure that courts are the right places to have these discussions.  For example, we could FOIA discussions of the timber program at the Forest Service or USDA, but not settlement agreements, nor the discussions that arrived at them. I’m interested in transparency and accountability; and the need to build trust in our government institutions.  As a result, I consider  non-transparency to the public as suboptimal.  Also, I would say to SELC, we could ask questions of them equivalent to their points about the Forest Service “have you considered that lawsuits like this and the 15-acre one might equally distract your organization from more pressing tasks and environmental concerns, especially with regard to climate?

20 thoughts on “New Lawsuit on Timber Targets by SELC: Is More NEPA the Answer?”

  1. Can someone please tell me what SELC means? I have to say the extensive use of acronyms on this website narrows the audience to a much smaller circle than it needs to be. I have said this before an it does not seem to get any traction. If you only want to communicate with a small group of people then keep talking in code!!

  2. The full complaint is here:

    In addition to generally challenging the timber targets, the complaint includes challenges to three specific timber projects, whose approvals allegedly “violate the APA because they fail to adequately consider the direct, indirect, and cumulative carbon impacts of each project as required by NEPA.” Id. at pdf p. 57.

    Sharon said: “Also, I’m not sure that court is the right place to have these discussions.”

    I wonder if the district court judge will have a similar reaction, at least with respect to the counts in the complaint not related to the three specific projects. Whether plaintiffs have standing to challenge the timber targets outside the context of a specific project, and whether the targets constitute final agency action within the meaning of the APA, may be the focus of lively argument in this case.

    • Targets are also functions of Congress through that mystical joint Admin/Congress budget-setting effort. Maybe there’s a separation of powers angle.

      • It’s not strictly a separation of powers problem because the targets are not legally binding. But it can be a serious political headache for the agency. As the Supreme Court has noted in a somewhat different context, agencies disregard informal Congressional input “at their peril.”

        The coping examples Anonymous cites elsewhere in this thread are consistent with what I’ve heard from friends in the FS.

  3. I may be an outlier, but I think the carbon impact is a specious argument on both sides. I think Sharon did a good job of showing why the environmental argument has some issues, but the timber harvesting side does as well. True, if the lumber is used to build a house, that is locked up in a useful purpose for some time. Hopefully a long time. However, to get the whole picture you have to figure in how much carbon was used in the equipment to log the trees, to haul the logs to the mill, used in the mill to process the logs, hauled from the mill to the point of sale? What about the carbon in the logging slash and top piles? Those either decay or are burned. Either way, they are releasing carbon. You have to tell the whole story and I have not seen that happen.

    • I agree, Dave. It seems like maybe what needs to be fully studied and presented is the net carbon storage/release over a 100 year period for different scenarios such as commercial harvesting, pre-commercial thinning with and without burning, burned forests, beetle/disease killed forests and mostly undisturbed forests. When it comes to commercial harvesting vs preservation of trees, the carbon budget of using alternative materials also needs to be considered. One of the many questions I have on the subject is with high severity burned forests. How much carbon is actually released and how much becomes decay resistant charcoal and what does that net carbon storage/release look like over 100 years.

      Of course, all of this will vary greatly by location and it won’t be stagnant due to the influence of climate change.

    • Dave, you won’t be surprised to know that different groups have come to different conclusions on this using different assumptions. And part of the analysis goes all the way to the buildings themselves, and comparing wood to the carbon used in other building materials. Or the carbon used in importing wood from our neighbors and so on. By the time you round up different ways of approaching it and different sets of assumptions it’s not all that useful IMHO. Because carbon is not a thing that should be considered separately from all the other values, both socioeconomic and environmental.

      • Totally agree! Chasing the carbon issue is probably not all that useful. But, for those of us paying attention, both the environmental groups and the timber industry are both touting their carbon credentials. It’s just that their stories are pretty much polar opposite. If they could actually look at it with common sense, maybe they could come to common ground. Good, common-sense management, thinning, and managing some mature stands and old growth (that doesn’t mean hands-off), could help us all to get to a better position.

  4. It’s fascinating to hear that so many people, even those that served their entire careers in the agency, do not clearly understand how the targets are set.

    I have had several close friends served as USFS staff officers and they complained often about quarterly data calls on timber targets, and especially about the 4th quarter crunch. They talked about the horse-trading that would go on between forests within a region to reach that year’s target and how much pressure the RO was under to achieve the regional target and how that pressure trickled down to the supervisors and rangers. If one forest was short, another might cover them by pushing a project from the next year into the current year, but that would require agreement that another forest would cover them for being short the next year. I have also been told that ranger and supervisor performance appraisals suffer if targets are not met without a good reason. It’s not specifically on the performance appraisal, but it’s an unspoken part of it.

    The USFS needs to stop with the timber targets. While an acre of commercial thinning does result in an acre of fuel treated (though not as well as if it were also Rx burned), chasing timber is a disincentive to focus on random acts of thinning, rather than strategically located treatments. Strategically located treatments are demonstrably more effective at increasing landscape resilience than randomly placing treatments. No matter how many times the ranger says to the public that their focus is not timber, the projects speak for themselves; the acres that actually get treated are those with commercial and the staff tell me behind closed doors that timber was driving the project.

  5. I think it is useful to view this through the lens of whether a commitment has been made that would “substantially alter agency programs” (this is from the definition of policy “actions” in the CEQ NEPA regulations). Targets seem to clearly be viewed as commitments by those who have to implement them. (If no-action alternative has been ruled out, there should have been a NEPA process that did that.) This could be a very entertaining case if it can’t be resolved by the administrative record, and employees have to testify as to how targets are used.

    There is a way that NEPA could be employed for timber programs in a simple and meaningful way. Targets could be based on projects that have already complied with NEPA. Do the NEPA when you put them in the pipeline, rather when you turn on the spigot.

    • Having now read the complaint, I see that main point is that the cumulative carbon-related effects of logging are not disclosed anywhere in a way that could be relevant to decision-making. Even if project effects were determined before targets were set, there would still be a need to look at those effects across forests and regions.

      Once upon a time (through 1995 I think), the national RPA Program was prepared with an EIS that could have looked at these kinds of questions. Also back in the early days, I understood that forest plans would be used to provide information “up the chain” that would be used when timber targets were negotiated. Forest plan EISs should now be addressing climate and carbon, so that could be a source of information for considering cumulative effects. (The complaint does not mention forest plans.)

      The basic thrust of the complaint is that, “Focusing harvests in regions with low wildfire risks but high carbon density—such as Regions 8 and 9—has different effects on long-term carbon storage than focusing harvests in regions with high wildfire risks and lower carbon density.” This is the kind of environmental tradeoff that NEPA seeks to daylight, and the Forest Service does not appear to use a process that could discern these implications.

      This looks like it was one hell of a FOIA effort. There are smoking guns lying all over the country documenting how much of a commitment timber targets are, and what effects they have. For those of us who have wondered how the process really works, plaintiffs have laid out their understanding, supported by agency statements, and we’ll see if the Forest Service disagrees. The core part is worth a read (pp. 27-45.)

      If you want to know what the agency values, look at its targets. This part of the agency decision-making process does not seem to have been changed by NEPA or NFMA or any kind of “new” forestry; underneath it all, it looks a lot like the “old” Forest Service. I agree that there may be some legal questions about what the agency action subject to NEPA is, but it does look like decisions causing environmental impacts have not been accounted for. (And even though this case is focused on carbon, the principles might apply to other issues better addressed at larger scales, like wide-ranging species.)

      • Yes, but Jon, if that’s the argument, then what about other agency programs that have been going on but have not been evaluated programmatically with an EIS.. like national solar expansion, or uranium mining or even gain-of-function research.. or think of DOD, how about a programmatic on a weapons system.. or federal fire suppression?

        As a non-lawyer, I think there is a difference between (1) analyzing the consequences of having a program and (2) saying that having accountability for the program in and of itself has an impact. So should we have more government programs without that pesky old need for accountability?

        Like I said, if the FS has an inappropriate focus on certain outputs (which reasonable people can disagree about).. that should be able to be addressed via the Congress and the Executive Branch. I think that’s how it usually happens.

        • If these other programs make a commitment comparable to timber targets, then yes the agencies should be considering the effects of that. (There is a national coal leasing EIS under way.)

          The question is not the agency’s choice of “accountability” mechanisms, but whether there is a federal action as defined by NEPA and the scope of relevant cumulative effects analysis.

          The lawsuit is not about what IS appropriate but whether the Forest Service is properly considering and disclosing what it decides is appropriate.

          • But there are no coal leasing targets that I know of.. so why shouldn’t every federal program require a programmatic EIS therefore?

            • That’s actually a good question. The CEQ regulations say an EIS is “sometimes required for broad Federal actions such as the adoption of new agency programs or regulations … Agencies shall prepare statements on broad actions so that they are relevant to policy and are timed to coincide with meaningful points in agency planning and decisionmaking.” This does not make it clear what makes a point “meaningful.” For that, I think you have to go to the definition of “proposal:” when an agency “has a goal and is actively preparing to make a decision on one or more alternative means of accomplishing that goal and the effects can be meaningfully evaluated.” It does not require an “irreversible commitment of resources.” So why aren’t there more of these – I don’t know. I used to keep my eyes open for court cases holding that an agency should have prepared a programmatic EIS, but I don’t remember finding much. That is the argument plaintiffs will have to make here, and they’ve presented facts that seem to meet these criteria.

  6. Both things can be true.. the FS can be serious about meeting its targets (inappropriately serious?) and timber targets can have value. You can also wonder whether instead of decreasing emphasis on timber accountability, the FS should increase accountability for other programs to match. Note what AFRC says about what is included in targets and relevant history, I bolded what was news to me.

    Here’s AFRC’s take from their newsletter.

    “Targets are measured in units of hundred cubic feet (CCF) and assigned by Region and by Forest following finalization of each fiscal year’s budget. These levels of planned harvest are also a function of multiple vegetation management projects that are analyzed through the lengthy and exhaustive NEPA process. This process includes the analysis of environmental impacts of conducting planned vegetation management, including the harvest of timber and other products.

    Since the Forest Service manages its land primarily for forest health and fire resiliency objectives, timber outputs are generally characterized as a ‘byproduct’ or ‘tool’ of attaining these other goals. As such, the annual output of these products is driven more by locally-desired forest health conditions than it is by top-down assigned CCFs. In fact, not all timber outputs actually come in the form of timber. For example, in fiscal year 2023, only 46% of Region 5’s “timber” outputs were actually in the form of timber products. The remaining 54% were firewood and biomass. These percentages were a function of the Region’s desire to meet its forest health conditions by removing small trees and brush that could only be utilized as firewood and biomass.

    Ultimately, the use of timber and non-timber targets serves as more of a customer and partner relationship device than a quota. Wood product manufacturing facilities rely on raw material from multiple sources, including timber and non-timber products from Forest Service lands. Estimations of the projected level of this supply for any given year are critical for planning and resource allocation. The same concept applies to loggers and other contractors who depend on accurate projections of workloads to plan their annual operations.

    Even these estimations and projections in the form of targets are often unreliable. In fiscal year 2023, Region 1 only attained 80% of its assigned timber target, and over a quarter of that total was in nontimber products such as firewood. In fiscal year 2021, Region 6’s target was reduced by 23% midway through the year to account for wildfire impacts. Despite these hiccups, purchasers and operators appreciate the Forest Service’s attempts to provide reliable annual work plans, even if they are occasionally unfulfilled. It’s discouraging to see special interest groups attempting to disrupt the agency’s ability to provide this critical piece of customer and partner service.


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