AMID the spotted owl controversy, the Redwood Summer protests, and the growing contentiousness of national politics, an unusual alliance of environmentalists and sawmill workers here in Montana has done what might have seemed impossible: It has agreed on how to divide up almost 2 million acres of national forest into wilderness and timberland. In June, local conservationists negotiated a landmark agreement with two locals of the Lumber Production and Industrial Workers' Union (LPIWU). Timber and mining companies added their support.
The idea has taken hold elsewhere. At a separate conference 200 miles to the south, timber workers and conservationists a few days later issued an accord on a 750,000-acre national forest.
Both areas have now been wrapped into a precedent-setting wilderness bill introduced in Congress last month by Montana's senior US senator, Max Baucus, a Democrat.
The bill - the Kootenai and Lolo National Forest Management Act - would set aside more than 670,000 acres of roadless land in the two areas of accord as wilderness and release 532,000 acres for logging, mining, and other development. Both sides say they would have liked more land designated their way, but they agree that of paramount importance was having the issue resolved.
The accords may point the way toward resolving other environmental disputes, which often deadlock in either-or terms of conservation versus jobs.
The US Forest Service, which issued a report in April predicting that saving the wooded habitat of the threatened spotted owl in Oregon would cost the state 28,000 jobs, is enthusiastic about the process pioneered in Libby.
``It's a start - folks are trying to get together to work out some conclusions,'' says Robert Shrink, supervisor of the Kootenai National Forest, the area divided up by the first accord. ``The Forest Service supports local consensus in solving local management issues, and we think this could be useful in other areas and projects as well.''
Montana's 6 million acres of federally owned roadless land - an aggregate area bigger than Vermont - have been in limbo for more than a decade while dispute rages over their designation.
Only about a third of the land is suitable for logging, but none can be cut, built upon, mined, or otherwise disturbed without an act of Congress. Such an act has been impossible so long as environmentalists and development interests in Montana are at odds.
Don Wilkins, business manager for LPIWU Local 2581, says the AFL-CIO affiliate's 650 workers were willing to compromise with environmentalists because they are beginning to realize that rapid timber cutting to maximize corporate profit might not be in their long-term interest.
Says Mr. Wilkins, ``There's some apprehension about what these companies have done in the last five to six years with their own lands, just wiping it out down to the pavement, and now they're going into the public lands.''
The owner of the unionized mills, Champion International Corporation, also had reason to support the accords when the workers pointed out that less than 5 percent of the two national forests' suitable timber would be set aside as wilderness. ``From a business standpoint, it seemed to make some sense,'' says Tucker Hill, Champion's regional director of public affairs. ASARCO, a mining concern, signed on after winning adjustments to accommodate its nearby operations.
Loggers and miners have been especially eager for a solution, as have conservationists concerned that Montana's timber industry might suffer as timber supplies decrease, causing the state's population to panic and open all 6 million acres to logging.
``This was a way to nail down at least a portion of precious wilderness for all time,'' says David Erickson, who led conservationists to the negotiating table.
Many people talk about how their own views changed. ``The day I went to the first meeting I didn't think I'd agree to another stick of wilderness,'' says James Cullen, president of LPIWU Local 2719 in nearby Thompson Falls, who also signed the Kootenai accord. ``I'm definitely not that person anymore. The amount of timber this frees up could allow a lot of good healthy timber to be taken, and our jobs depend on the availability of logging timber.''
Union official Wilkins notes that timber cutters aren't necessarily anti-wilderness: ``We've all lived here for 105 years and like to hunt and fish in those mountains.''
David Ablesworth, director of the public lands and energy division of the National Wildlife Federation in Washington, D.C., praises the accords. ``It is very significant that a portion of the environmental community was finally able to reach out to the very workers who are supposed to be adversely affected by wilderness designation.''
The accords are not legally binding; only Congress can make laws regarding federal land. And Senator Baucus, who is campaigning for reelection, may not get far this year with the bill. Montana Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, who earlier this year introduced a statewide bill that would set aside less area for wilderness, has accused Baucus of playing partisan politics.
Senator Burns himself owes his seat in part to the Montana wilderness debate; President Reagan's 11th-hour veto of Democratic Sen. John Melcher's wilderness bill is said to have been critical in Burns's defeat of Senator Melcher in 1988. But Sen. Dale Bumpers of (D) of Arkansas, chairman of the subcommittee on public lands, national parks, and forests, has said he will not consider the Montana bill this year until both senators agree on it.
Burns complains that too many interests - such as small mining-claim owners, nonunion loggers, and snowmobilers and other motorized recreationists - were not consulted before the accords were signed. Louisiana Pacific Corporation, which competes with Champion in Libby, also refused its support.
``It isn't an accord,'' says Bruce Vincent, president of his family's logging company and the Kootenai accord's most vociferous local opponent, unless it includes support from the whole community. ``I know I, for one, was deliberately left out.''
Replies Mr. Erickson, ``Some people are just flat anti-wilderness and you're not going to change them. I told Bruce, `We've been talking about a wilderness bill in Montana for 13 years. If you're included, we'll be talking about it for another 13.' ''