PRESIDENT Clinton got everybody involved in the fight over federal forests in the Pacific Northwest around the same table and talking to each other. That was the easy part.
Now come the more difficult tasks: keeping the dialogue going, finding short-term help for thousands of timber workers impacted by legal gridlock that has tied up millions of acres, and pushing through a longer-range legislative solution that will protect dwindling species like the northern spotted owl and salmon while assuring some measure of economic stability for timber towns in the region.
At the forest conference here Friday, most participants from environmental groups, the wood-products industry, affected communities, and scientific disciplines expressed gratitude that Mr. Clinton and his team of senior officials had listened hard, asked probing questions, and were willing to take the high-visibility political risk of grappling with a problem that has been years in the making.
"I was skeptical, but I'm very, very pleased," said Phyllis Shrauger, mayor of Hoquiam, Wash., who told how her small town on the Olympic peninsula recently lost more than 600 jobs when a pulp and paper mill shut down.
Rick Brown, a forest ecologist with the National Wildlife Federation, told the president: "This kind of high-level involvement by an administration is a breath of fresh air for me."
All sides were cheered by Clinton's announcement that he was ordering the Cabinet to assemble within 60 days "a plan to end this stalemate," which he said must be based on five principles:
* Never forgetting the human and economic dimension of environmental problems.
* Protecting the long-term health of forests and wildlife that he described as "a gift from God."
* Proceeding on the basis of decisions that are "scientifically sound, ecologically credible, and legally responsible."
* Assuring a "predictable and sustainable level of timber sales."
* And making government agencies work together.
At the conference, also known as the "timber summit," government and academic experts described the impact of logging and other development on hundreds of species.
"The northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet [another threatened bird in the Northwest] are perhaps only the tip of the iceberg," said Charles Meslow, director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service's cooperative-research unit. "At least 480 other species may be following in their wake."
Industry officials, environmentalists, and scientists now agree that forests must be managed with regard to entire ecosystems - not just on the basis of individual species. But agreement on the concept and actually achieving it are two very different things, experts warn.
"That approach is not going to be simple ... it is not going to be cheap," said Jack Ward Thomas, a US Forest Service biologist.
"The complexity of those systems is beyond imagination," said Jerry Franklin, a University of Washington forest ecologist. "We probably can grow spotted-owl habitat. But it's unlikely we are going to know anytime soon how to grow old-growth forests."
In recent years, environmentalists have had the upper hand. Under existing laws such as the National Forest Management Act, it has been fairly easy to block the sale of timber from federal forest parcels by filing appeals.
But the result of the appeals process - along with other issues affecting the industry, such as log exports and automation - has been very hard on some communities.
"We are moving into a process that looks a lot like what happened in the inner cities," said Robert Lee, a University of Washington sociologist. "We are seeing the collapse of families, disintegration of families, disintegration of communities, homelessness, stranded elderly people, people whose lives are in disarray from substance abuse."
"The timber crisis is a moral issue," said Thomas Murphy, a Roman Catholic archbishop in Seattle. "A culture, a way of life ... is dying."
While voices have been lowered and there is much talk of "seeking common ground" through compromise, positions have not changed much. Environmentalists, especially, seem to be digging in.
"When so little of the virgin forest is left, ... environmentalists are not in a position to compromise," said Andy Kerr, conservation director for the Oregon Natural Resources Council. "The forest has been compromised all it can."
Environmentalists are pushing for a system of old-growth "forest reserves"; a permanent end to logging in such forests, of which only 10 percent remain, they claim; a total ban on log exports, which account for one-fourth of all trees cut down in the Northwest; and emphasis on developing manufacturing businesses that would "add value" to harvested wood fiber instead of shipping it out of the region as raw logs or chips.
Timber officials and grass-roots workers in the industry are prepared for a new era. But they want to see the Clinton team get the court injunctions against timber sales lifted, then design and win congressional approval of legislation that would assure a predictable supply.
"I hope in 60 days we have something Congress can work with to break this terrible gridlock," said Mike Draper, executive secretary of the Western Council of Industrial Workers, which represents the interests of some 30,000 loggers and millworkers.
"All of us are going to have to take some risks and make some changes," said Rich Nafziger, the coordinator of Washington's state timber policy.