top of page

Environmental Economics and Public Oversight of Our National Forests

For decades, both Congressional and independent research has shown that the National Forest timber sale program loses money.  Beyond the dollars and cents of subsidies and sale receipts and subsidies lie other costs to the taxpayer and the health of the forest. The Forest Service’s sale of public property to private interests at a loss to taxpayers is a paradox that demonstrates how vital the use of environmental economics is in citizen oversight of National Forest management.​ 
In the 1990's, the congressional Government Accountability Office (GAO) tried to investigate the Forest Service's timber program, finding some glaring inefficiencies, such as a maintenance
backlog of thousands of miles of roads that are mostly subsidized logging road infrastructure. Ultimately, it found that after extensive research, the agency's accounting system was obscure and deceptive to the point of being unaccountable
Public interest groups have also worked to make sense of the often Byzantine world of public lands logging.  A recent report by the watchdog group 
Center for Sustainable Economy has found that the agency loses up to 2 billion dollars a year due to subsidies and other factors that distort timber markets and contribute to an overall loss of forest biodiversity and productivity.  
Key findings of the report include: 

  • Federal forestlands are far more valuable when managed for carbon and other ecosystem services yet logging on these lands continues to be subsidized. 

  • Taxpayer subsidies for the federal logging program ranged from $1.6 to $1.8 billion per year in fiscal years 2013 through 2017. The estimated losses are conservative as they do not include externalities like logging-related damage to water, soils, and wildlife

  • The Forest Service attempts to justify these losses by hiding commercial timber sale projects within larger ecological restoration projects – a move that consistently lands the agency in court. 

  • Selling timber from federal lands below cost is a form of environmentally harmful subsidy that runs afoul of international agreements. 


The enormous volume of forest roads that are subsidized for the timber industry is another underappreciated taxpayer expense. For decades, the Forest Service had acknowledged billions of dollars of maintenance backlog in its enormous road system.  


Along with environmental consequences, citizen groups increasingly take the lead in revealing the economic impacts of public lands mismanagement. By using research tools like the Freedom of Information Act and collaborating with economists, the grassroots can ensure that the public trust is better guarded. 

bottom of page