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Why MountainTrue wants to pause lumber sales in the southeast

The people of Transylvania County are fortunate enough to live within footsteps of Pisgah National Forest and a short drive to Nantahala National Forest.

MountainTrue’s Public Lands Biologist Josh Kelly cores a 231-year-old tree that had been slated for logging in Nantahala National Forest. The oak was saved due to project advocacy undertaken by MountainTrue. Courtesy photo, MountainTrue

There is a deep bond and appreciation for public land as a shared resource that enriches all our lives.

Our enchanted forests provide trails for biking, horseback riding and hiking; streams for swimming, paddling and fishing; and habitat needed to make the southern Blue Ridge Mountains one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet.

The National Forests in western North Carolina are a critical part of our region’s outdoor economy, but our National Forests also serve as a critical part of our climate solution.

Forests convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and store huge amounts of carbon to prevent it from worsening the climate crisis.

In the words of Arkansas Congressman Bruce Westerman,

“Trees are still the most large-scale, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly carbon sequestration devices we have.”

In Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests, we have more than one million acres of forests that should be managed with climate change in mind.

So why is the US Forest Service planning to cut down even more of our healthiest, most carbon-dense forests while neglecting our most urgent needs?

Last year was the hottest year on record and across the globe we are witnessing the intensifying effects of climate change with longer droughts, more extreme storms and flooding and a greater loss of biodiversity.

Despite mounting evidence of our deepening climate crisis, the Forest Service is ignoring the climate consequences of these decisions and ramping up timber harvests by stating that it intends to “increase the levels of timber volumes sold” after years of timber production they characterize as “higher than any period in the previous few decades.”

A disproportionate amount of this timber comes from lush coves and other climate-stable Eastern forests such as the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests, not the arid, fire-prone lands of the west.

At issue is bureaucratic inertia and an antiquated approach to forest management on the part of the Department of Agriculture and Forest Service.

Each year, the secretary of agriculture sets a national timber target. The Washington office of the Forest Service then assigns portions of the national target to each of the nine Forest Service regions and charges regional agency staff with fulfilling their regional target.

The regional staff then distributes their regional target amongst the national forest units within their region. Those units then develop timber projects to fulfill their unit-specific target.

If each unit fulfills its target each region will fulfill its regional target resulting in fulfillment of the national target.

In recent years the national timber target has been set as high as 4 billion board feet — enough timber to circle the earth more than 30 times, yet the Forest Service has never accounted for the carbon effects of its timber targets nor the aggregate carbon effects of the timber projects it authorizes to achieve those targets.

This leaves the agency blind to the carbon consequences of its decisions and violates the National Environmental Policy Act.

Instead, the Forest Service completes a siloed analysis of the carbon effects for some individual projects which it then dismisses as a “minuscule” drop in the bucket rather than having to account for the cumulative climate effects of the numerous projects authorized to meet their national timber target. Many smaller projects receive no such analysis.

That is why MountainTrue, alongside the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Chattooga Conservancy, is taking a stand by filing a lawsuit to request a pause on further timber sales in the southeast that contribute to the agency’s aggressive 2024 targets (except in cases where it is necessary for wildfire risk reduction) until the Forest Service aligns its practices with the National Environmental Policy Act.

Our lawsuit is not about stopping all logging in our national forests. It is about challenging outdated practices, ensuring that timber harvests are used to meet ecological needs rather than volume targets and making sure we make decisions with our eyes open to climate consequences.

By holding the Forest Service accountable, MountainTrue supports not only the Biden administration’s climate initiatives but also its efforts to preserve our nation’s ancient and mature forests.

Our hope is that by managing our public lands in accordance with our current climate reality, the Forest Service will once again be able to live up to its motto of “care for the land and serve the people.”

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