ROGUE RIVER NATIONAL FOREST, ORE. — IT'S a hot, dusty day in the Rogue River National Forest just north of Union Creek, Ore., where Mitch Lee's chain saw and those of his crew are sputtering loudly and spitting wood chips.
But rather than whacking down trees for transport to the saw mill, this group in hardhats and heavy boots is carefully pruning and thinning a stand of pine, fir, and hemlock so that the forest -- marked by the stumps of a 50 year-old clearcut -- can repair itself.
It's a long day of hard work. But at the end of it, says Mr. Lee, ''I can know that I'm doing some good.'' Looking up at the trees she's just left standing, fourth-generation logger Karen Davis says, ''You see these trees, and you know there's a future for our kids.''
The effort here is part of a federal program to train displaced timber workers for a life beyond tree-felling and mill jobs. It comes at a time when the Pacific Northwest is shifting to an economy that is less timber-dependent and moving to a new environmental ethic as well.
When the controversy over the endangered spotted owl hit its peak several years ago, timber industry officials predicted that 65,700 jobs would be lost because of environmental restrictions. Government economists were less alarmist, but said the figure would be at least 20,000.
But a recent survey of state employment statistics by the Portland Oregonian newspaper finds the job-loss figure to be much lower than forecast. In the timber states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, the total drop in mill and logging jobs over the past six years has been 16,695.
Meanwhile, Oregon -- the heart of spotted owl country -- has seen its unemployment rate drop to the lowest level in 25 years as high-tech firms and other businesses move to a region known for its quality of life.
Sony is about to open a new factory to build compact- disc players in Springfield. Across the Willamette River in Eugene, Hyundai announced it will build a computer-chip manufacturing plant employing at least 1,000 workers.
''That's a lot of sawmills,'' says Andy Stahl, executive director of the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.
Still, for timber workers from small, rural towns like Sweet Home and Butte Falls, the shutdown of one mill or the loss of one logging contract in a national forest can equal severe economic depression. This is especially true for those who don't have the skills in electronic equipment or for whom moving to a city would be very difficult.
That's where the ''Jobs in the Woods'' demonstration program here comes in. Part of President Clinton's Northwest Economic Adjustment Initiatives Program, it's been set up to turn loggers into ''ecosystem technicians.''
Laid-off timber workers like Robert Crawford, a young man whose wife is about to have their first child, spend one day a week at a local community college learning basic math and writing skills, plus surveying, wildlife habitat repair, forest and stream ecology, and fire-fighting. The rest of the week they put their new knowledge to work in the national forests.
Over the eight-month period of the program about 100 workers in eight locations around the region will be paid $10 an hour and provided health-care benefits. The expectation is that their new skills in ecosystem restoration will bring jobs in an industry that is changing because of political pressure and new public values.
''It would be nice to go into business for myself,'' says Jeff Ingram, a former millworker in his mid-20s.
For many who have lived and worked in forests all their lives, the new approach to resource management is an eye-opener.
The day before, Mitch Lee's crew of six was fighting through thick brush up a steep bank of the Applegate River, repairing a riparian area that had been damaged by an earlier generation of loggers.
''I've logged for years without knowing what a riparian zone was,'' says Karen Davis's husband, Rick. ''Things have to change. We've cut too much over the years.''
While ecologists and the timber industry have been fighting each other in the courts and in Congress for years, this program has provided an opportunity to work toward mutual goals. Heading up the group of state, federal, and private organizations that organized the ''Jobs in the Woods'' program here is the Rogue Institute for Ecology and Economy, a group formed five years ago by a millworkers union and three environmental groups.
''This is the first time I've seen loggers and environmentalists in the same room without veins sticking out on their heads,'' says Davis. ''It's pretty nice.''