ASHLAND, ORE. — Mountain forests, prairies, coastal wetlands - scores of natural areas around the United States - are in dangerous decline as reflected in unusually high rates of extinction. And unless things change, warns a just-released Department of Interior report, more and more species could go the way of the spotted owl and salmon due to ''extensive loss'' of habitat.
Yet the agency that is the main source of information on these critical areas is caught in the middle of a political debate over the role of science in federal policy, a debate involving fundamental social values.
With its modest budget and academic bent, the National Biological Service (NBS) would seem innocuous enough: field scientists in sturdy boots peering through binoculars and scribbling in notebooks as they count birds, measure trees, and check the health of prairie grasses. They then provide scientific data to farmers, state fish and game officials, and others working on the land.
But at a time when environmental programs are under fire and private-property rights are being asserted in Congress, what Bruce Babbitt has called ''my top priority as secretary of the interior'' could be sharply cut back - if not wiped out. The US House and Senate have cut the agency's 1996 research budget (by 33 percent and 13 percent, respectively), and lawmakers in both chambers want to curtail its activities in other ways as well, such as limiting access to private land. The House version would eliminate NBS as an agency, transferring its functions to the US Geological Survey.
Less than two years old, the NBS is a federal research agency that draws scientists from throughout the government to survey and analyze natural resources around the US. Agency scientists assess fish stocks and trace pollution in the Great Lakes, map vegetation in national parks, and track the spread of invasive exotic animal and plant species.
Together with state and local officials, academic experts, nonprofit organizations, and citizen volunteers, the NBS is studying biological diversity in 33 states through its Gap Analysis Program. This includes use of satellite imagery as well as data collected on the ground.
The idea is to provide the ''good science'' both Mr. Babbitt and his opponents say is necessary to make correct policy decisions about the environment.
But those wary of the NBS say scientists aren't necessarily neutral, particularly with the emergence of ''conservation biology'' - a discipline focusing on species diversity and the threat of extinction whose specialists are often strong advocates as well.
Indeed, the NBS report titled ''Our Living Resources'' warns that ''if unchecked, human activities will continue to result in an upset balance of species interactions, alteration of ecosystems, and extensive habitat loss.'' In other words, people may have to change their lifestyles if other species are to survive.
Earlier this year, another report by the agency cited ''significant losses of biodiversity at the ecosystem level.''
''Losses of all kinds of ecosystems have been most pronounced in the South, Northeast, and Midwest, and in California,'' the authors wrote. This included more than 125 ecosystems identified as ''critically endangered'' (98 percent gone), ''endangered'' (down by 85-98 percent), or ''threatened'' (with a 70-84 percent decline). ''Pristine sites,'' they added, ''are almost nonexistent.''
Critics worry that scientists may be looking for endangered species to use as bureaucratic tools for controlling activities on private property, which is where most such species are found in this country. They are particularly concerned about NBS use of volunteers (some of whom are environmental activists) to conduct surveys of plants and animals.
Interior Secretary Babbitt acknowledges that assessing natural resources across the nation involves the study of private lands. But in arguing for the agency before Congress, he said, ''I have no intention of abrogating private property and trespass laws.''
Babbitt also promised that ''no employee of the NBS will enter private property without permission from the owner.'' But the Senate Interior Department appropriations bill takes this one step further by forbidding aerial surveys without such permission, which NBS officials say could make the tracking of radio-collared bears, waterfowl, and other animals (as well as pollution such as oil spills) nearly impossible.
''It would make things very difficult, because you don't always know whose land you're flying over,'' says NBS public affairs officer Trudy Harlow. ''Our GAP analysis programs would be devastated.''
More fundamental is what constitutes an ''ecosystem'' or ''ecosystem management'' - neither of which have official definitions.The Nature Conservancy classifies terrestrial community types by vegetation: forest, woodland, shrub land, herbaceous, and sparsely vegetated. The earlier February report for NBS uses a general definition: ''a community of all the species populations that occupy a given area and its nonliving environment.'' The authors also acknowledge that ''ecosystems remain less tangible than species.''
''Everybody's got a different definition, which means there's no definition,'' says John Shanahan, an environmental analyst at the Heritage Foundation.
Several experts have referred to ecosystems as ''not only more complicated than we think but more complicated that we can think.''
In addition to concerns about property rights and fending off science-with-an-agenda, congressional opponents cite budget considerations. ''There is a private property concern, but we need to eliminate programs entirely or we're not going to get to a balanced budget in seven years,'' says a Republican House source.
Those in favor of federal efforts to survey natural resources say opponents are reacting to bad news by attacking the messenger.
''Let's not repeat the mistake that the Roman inquisitors made in jailing Galileo for discovering that the Earth revolved around the sun,'' World Resources Institute vice president Walter Reid wrote in an Monitor opinion column earlier this year.
Aside from a relatively few naysayers, most knowledgeable scientists are increasingly concerned about the decline of species and the loss of habitat as ecosystems continue to be impacted by human development. The just-released NBS report includes nearly 200 papers from specialists representing more than 15 federal agencies, 15 state agencies, 25 universities, and 13 private organizations.
The report stresses ''the critical importance of preserving biological diversity.'' It notes that ''humans have driven the rate of extinctions today to about 100 times - two orders of magnitude - the natural rate,'' and it warns that ''the more diversity we lose, the more our quality of life and economic potential are diminished.''
And yet the study ends on a politically aware note: ''The challenge for policymakers is to avoid ecologically irreversible choices that would diminish the wealth of future generations while promoting economic development and improving income distribution.''