Another Perspective On Environmental Law Suits

I sent this into the Helena IR in response to an article that basically tried to portray the idea that environmental lawyers and groups were getting rich off of law suits that are often characterized as “frivolous”. In truth no one wins a law suit if it’s frivolous, and the fact that some groups win so many suits is indicative of agency failure to follow the law. But even more importantly, the article put the light on the wrong subject– in truth successful law suits save taxpayers money because they prevent even more wasteful and frivolous logging operations.  Here’s the original article

Tom Kuglin’s October 12th IR article on environmental attorney fees focused on the wrong subject. The real story is that ultimately environmental law suits save the taxpayer money by modifying or stopping frivolous timber sales. Here’s why.

First, nearly all Forest Service timber sales in Montana lose money—millions of dollars a year. When an environmental group successfully stops a timber sale, they are preventing government waste.

Second, Forest Service’s accounting practices have been severely criticized by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) because the agency hides many of the timber program costs as “overhead” –things like the cost of office space, electricity, outside consultants, vehicles, and so forth. If these costs were included in the cost of the timber program, the savings to taxpayers  by successful environmental law suits would be even greater.

Third, the Forest Service accounting practices do not include the environmental degradation and potential costs of fixing damage from logging. Logging roads are a major vector for weeds. Logging roads are also a major source of sedimentation in our rivers degrading trout habitat.  Logging can degrade elk hiding cover and displace sensitive but rare wildlife like lynx and grizzly bear. Logging removes biomass—reducing recruitment of down wood that is critical habitat for many plants and animals as well as long term carbon storage. And research has demonstrated that even thinning programs designed to reduce fire spread—often exacerbate fires—yet another cost that is ignored. These are all costs not borne by the timber industry benefiting from public timber, rather they are externalized to taxpayers ultimately.

Fourth, many Forest Service timber sales are justified based on old out of date ideas about fires and forest health that lack an ecological perspective. Newer research demonstrates that large wildfires, for instance, are critical to forest health. Some of the highest biodiversity in forest ecosystems is found in the snag forests after severe wildfires.

Large wildfires also reduce the likelihood of future fires—thus saving tax dollars again that would otherwise go into wasteful and unnecessary fire-fighting operates.

In truth these law suits are saving all of us tremendous amounts of money and precluding ill-advised and ecologically destructive logging operations.  That is the real story that was overlooked.

Bio: George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has published 37 books, including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy



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  1. JimT Avatar

    What a joke, this old saw about environmental attorneys getting rich off of lawsuits…LOL. Same old made up slander about the “greenies”. George is exactly right. If the agencies and the extractive industries would follow the laws and regulations, there wouldn’t be so many lawsuits filed or won. Second, the violations are usually repeats of previously legally liable procedures and operations barely repackaged as some new approach. No wonder they lose those as well. Third, the sales are losers for the American taxpayer, so every time one is withdrawn or stopped, the taxpaying public wins.

    Keep speaking truth, George.

  2. Garry Rogers Avatar

    George, I added your article to the NatCon News ( Narrow-minded users of the land that refuse to learn will always be angry when their practices are challenged. The U. S. Forest Service is more an abuser than just a user.

  3. Amre Avatar

    Finally! Someone confronting the myth of environmental lawyers getting rich off of lawsuits! Thanks George!

  4. BobMc Avatar

    (^^^) I guess the worst thing about environmental lawsuits is that everyone benefits, instead of the for-profit organization that steals more profits by short-cuts and environmental degradation. These lawsuits just make it harder to maximize shareholders’ value by cheating. Where’s America’s capitalistic free-market principles in that? Not-for-profit environmental groups should be heavily taxed and regulated to keep them from interfering with free-market economics and the trickle-down of benefits sometime in the future. (^^^)

    Nice article, George. I believe that we tree-huggers need to keep shining a light on the economic principles that allow the few to extract common wealth from the many. Thomas Paine expressed these problems and a solution in his pamphlet “Agrarian Justice,” published around 1795. No wonder Paine is so little known or liked in the US. After Paine’s writing sparked a successful drive for Revolution, his radical ideas were dismissed as we might never establish a 1% if we had agrarian justice.

    1. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      ^^Interesting post. 🙂

  5. Theo Chu Avatar
    Theo Chu

    Right on target as usual.

  6. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    George, very good! This topic needed to be addressed.

    I want to add that judges hate frivolous lawsuits, and they certainly don’t give legal victories to those who file one.

    That an environmental group wins a suit is solid proof that it wasn’t frivolous.

    Those who call them frivolous are really saying that they wish the suit was somehow prevented from ever seeing a judge.

  7. Gary Humbard Avatar
    Gary Humbard

    I disagree with many of George’s assertions and here are my arguments on a case by case basis:

    “Nearly all Forest Service timber sales in Montana lose money—millions of dollars a year. When an environmental group successfully stops a timber sale, they are preventing government waste”.

    Since NEARLY ALL timber sales in Montana lose money, whether or not groups successfully stop one would have little impact in preventing government waste. If saving money is the issue, then ultimatly terminating all timber sale personnel would need to occur. Also, if Timber Sale A would make money and was stopped and Timber Sale B would lose money and was allowed to go forth, who is preventing waste?

    I will do some research but I doubt there are very few national forests nationwide (except western Washington and Oregon and northern California) where the majority of timber sales sell above cost. I’m not aware the Forest Service is manadated to sell above cost timber sales and that the federal government was in the buisiness of making money. In Montana, 85% of timber harvesting comes from private and state lands, with 15% from FS lands (federal ownership accounts for 67% of timber base). Consider the following “big picture”: the demand for forest products is strong, federal ownership accounts for the majority of timber base and federal timber sales are the gold standard for environmental protection, where would you rather have timber harvests come from.

    “Forest Service’s accounting practices have been severely criticized by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) because the agency hides many of the timber program costs as “overhead”.

    How about the costs incurred by lawsuits. I know first hand how lawsuits (whether frivulous or not), take up precious time and resources by federal agencies, wasting taxpayer monies with no real change to environmental impacts. If you honestly believe there is not some motivation by environmental organizations to file lawsuits for finanacial gain, then you are kidding yourself.

    “The Forest Service accounting practices do not include the environmental degradation and potential costs of fixing damage from logging.”

    George mentioned numerous impacts that occur from timber harvesting of which I will respond again that federal timber sales are the GOLD STANDARD for environmental protection, adhering to numerous federal laws such as the ESA, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and local forest and resource plans. If anyone wants to question my assertions, then read a local BLM or FS resource management plan and then a specific timber sale environmental assessment and you will be astonished that timber sales actually get sold.

    There are cases when lawsuits will result in a significant improvement to the resources on the ground, but IMO there are way too many that just “bog down” the end result and increase the costs to American taxpayers. The demand for wood products is ever increasing and impacts know no boundary. Do we want to continue to rely heavily on private and state forest lands (who have minimal environmental standards) or the gold standard of federal lands?

    1. JimT Avatar

      1. You don’t refute George’s claim that the Feds lose money on timber sales every year; you just disagree with it. Not enough.

      2. You also fail to address the need to hold extractive industries and the government to the letter of the law, and that environmental groups are usually the only entities up to that task. Unless, of course, you don’t give a whit about complying with existing laws and regulations as a guiding principle in this matter.

      3. Your assertion that lawsuits are brought to generate funds for environmental groups shows how little you understand about the practice of law in the federal arena, how environmental groups really operate in the real world, and the realities of being a public interest lawyer doing this work. And again, if you want fewer lawsuits, then be part of an effort to ensure that extractive industries and the Federal agonies that implement the laws and regs do their jobs proactively and in compliance with these elements. THAT is the best way to have fewer lawsuits.

      1. Gary Humbard Avatar
        Gary Humbard

        1. Below cost timber sales typically consist of harvesting relatively small (10″-14″ dbh) trees using thinning harvest methods (instead of clearcut). These relatively “low value” trees in conjuction with high logging costs (ie. hand falling, cable yarding, long trucking distances, road construction and maintenance, slash disposal) results in a low stumpage value. Add this to seasonal restrictions to protecte ESA fish and wildlife and what do you have, below cost sales. May not be enough but its reality. Another alternative would be to allow the FS to remove larger trees with a higher value and talk about lawsuits. The current alternative to meet a growing demand for forest products is to rely heavily on private, state and foreign countries (minimal any environmental protections) instead of federal lands (with maximum environmental protections). Whom do you want your forest products to come from?

        2. I’m well aware of the need to hold the federal government to the law as it was my responsibility to assure federal projects were legally defensible in court. My main argument is when groups consistently protested federal timber sales that contained trees older than 80 years old in conjunction with regeneration harvest. Ninety percent of these lawsuits were found in favior of the government, yet they took up valuable personnel time
        and bogged down the agency. I will do research how many lawsuits are found in favor of the defendent and what results occured from it.

        3. OK, I will give you that environmental organizations have NO GOAL of bringing in donations through lawsuits. Thats good to know.

        My main point is there are costs associated with timber harvesting, both in dollars and environmental degradation. Even though they meet state forest practices requirments, everyday I see the degradation caused by private timber companies as they clearcut harvest up to 120 acres with minimal buffers and wildlife trees, hauling during high periods of rainfall causing sediment to enter streams, all to meet the need of forest products. If you think improving state forest practice requirements is the answer, that is a battle that will not be won with private landownership rights.

        I also know that typically 1% to 2% of the total forest base on federal lands (Oregon and Washington) is harvested each year (leaving 98% to 99% untouched). These sales typically use thinning harvest, promoting forest stands for diversity, thus encouraging recovery and protection of ESA species.

  8. Dave Jones Avatar
    Dave Jones

    G. Humbard writes that 1 to 2% of the forest is cut each year. Doesn’t that mean that in less than 100 years almost the entire forest is cut, leaving a very young forest with little diversity and practically no areas of old-growth? Seems like a sustainable cut would be on the order of 0.25% per year.

    1. Gary Humbard Avatar
      Gary Humbard

      Clarification on 1 to 2% of forest land base cut each year. The vast majority of the timber harvesting today on federal forests utilizes commerical thinnings. The thinnings typically begin when the stands are ~40 years old and are then thinned multiple times (typically 15 to 20 year intervals) so throughout a forest stands life span, it would receive 3 to 4 thinning entries.

      The 1 to 2% could include stands that have received prior thinnings, and are being thinned again to achieve a variety of objectives, thus a very low percent of forest stands are treated each year.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner