WHAT may be the most intense forest controversy in modern times is coming to a head in Congress with implications for thousands of loggers and the future of a unique American woodland. Next week a House-Senate conference committee will try to resolve - at least temporarily - a long-standing dispute: cutting ``old growth'' forests in the Pacific Northwest, some of the last remnants of the ancient virgin woods that once blanketed large areas of North America.
Environmentalists want to limit the cutting of these imposing cathedrals of fir, hemlock, and pine to preserve the trees and to protect the rare Northern spotted owl, which lives primarily in the old-growth forests.
They have won preliminary court orders blocking timber sales on federal lands in Oregon, Washington, and indirectly, northern California.
But the timber industry contends that conservationists are putting trees and owls before people and that a continued ban on logging would undermine the economies of hundreds of mill towns throughout the region.
The legislative solution currently being fashioned will govern timber sales only for one year, leaving future lawmakers to deal with the most visible and vociferous battle in an escalating war over control of the nation's public woodlands.
``At stake is what Oregon and Washington and California are going to look like in the future,'' says Bob Freimark, of the Wilderness Society in Oregon.
The roots of the conflict go back to the 1940s, when a postwar housing boom led to extensive logging on private lands. As these resources were depleted, timber companies turned to public lands, including those with old-growth forests.
Several million acres of the ancient woodland are safe from loggers because they are within national parks or wilderness areas. The battle is over what remains.
At current cutting rates, conservationists argue, the unprotected forests could vanish in less than 20 years. Timber interests maintain they will be around for more than a half century and plenty are protected that will never be cut. ``We need a balance between forest land that is set aside and that which is open to multiple use,'' says Ralph Saperstein, of the Western Forest Industries Association.
Environmental activists have slowed the cutting through lawsuits filed to protect the 18-inch spotted owl. Through court injunctions, they have reduced the amount of timber available for harvesting on federal lands in Oregon and Washington this year by about 56 percent.
Moreover, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to decide by next summer whether the dappled brown bird should be included on the list of threatened species. If it is, the owl's habitat would become protected under provisions of the Endangered Species Act.
Such a move could severely effect the timber industry. Already complaining of a ``log gap,'' pro-timber groups predict that a continuing ban could cost the region more than 50,000 jobs.
``If the cutting is stopped, you are going to close down a lot of towns,'' says Barry Polsky, of the American Forest Resource Alliance.
Conservationists counter that enough trees exist to sustain a vibrant industry and protect owls if the sales on federal lands were refocused to second-growth woodlands and exports of raw logs from private and state-owned lands were halted.
Worried about job losses, politicians in the region have been anxiously trying to resolve the dispute. In July, they proposed to trade slightly reduced timber harvests and pledge to protect some woodlands for a congressional mandate temporarily freeing timber sales from most court-ordered bans. It would remain in force through fiscal 1990.
Loggers grudgingly accepted the proposal, but environmentalists balked. Even so, Sens. Mark Hatfield (R) of Oregon and Brock Adams (D) of Washington pushed it through the Senate. A modified version is expected to come up in conference committee next week.
Environmentalists are particularly rankled at a provision forbidding anyone from seeking court injunctions to prohibit cutting. They contend that this provision would violate their legal right to fight the companies.
Whatever form the proposal takes in the next few weeks, the underlying issues will remain.
``This is just the first skirmish,'' says Bruce Hamilton of the Sierra Club.