Groundbreaking lawsuit takes aim at U.S. Forest Service’s timber targets

Press release from Southern Environmental Law Center, Chattooga Conservancy and MountainTrue:

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.

The Southern Environmental Law Center filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of two conservation groups, the Chattooga Conservancy and MountainTrue, and an individual in Missouri.

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.

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

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.

“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.”

“Each year, the Forest Service’s pursuit of fulfilling its timber targets results in carbon emissions equivalent to burning billions of pounds of coal,” said Nicole Hayler, Executive Director of the Chattooga Conservancy.  “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.”

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.

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.


The Southern Environmental Law Center is one of the nation’s most powerful defenders of the environment, rooted in the South. With a long track record, SELC takes on the toughest environmental challenges in court, in government, and in our communities to protect our region’s air, water, climate, wildlife, lands, and people. Nonprofit and nonpartisan, the organization has a staff of 200, including more than 120 legal and policy experts, and is headquartered in Charlottesville, Va., with offices in Asheville, Atlanta, Birmingham, Chapel Hill, Charleston, Nashville, Richmond and Washington, D.C.

MountainTrue champions resilient forests, clean waters, and healthy communities. We are committed to keeping our mountain region a beautiful place to live, work and play. Our members protect our forests, clean up our rivers, plan vibrant and livable communities, and advocate for a sound and sustainable future for all.

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