IF the definition of ``balance'' in public policy is that an administration gets sued from all sides, then a new plan by President Clinton to save the spotted owl fits the bill.
As they first did several years ago in forcing government agencies to list the owl as a ``threatened'' species under the Endangered Species Act, hard-line environmental groups say the Clinton plan, which was issued on Wednesday, violates the National Forest Management Act by allowing too much logging in old-growth forests.
``With this level of cut, lawsuits are inevitable,'' says Jim Middaugh, spokesman for the Oregon Natural Resources Council, which advocates an end to all private logging on federal lands and a ban on log exports.
Timber industry officials are no less upset with details of the administration proposal to allow some tree-cutting while protecting wildlife habitat.
``There's more holes in this plan than there were in previous plans,'' says Chris West, vice president of the Northwest Forest Resource Council, an industry trade group. ``The president promised to put forth a plan that is both balanced and legally defensible, and it fails on both counts.''
``This plan directly violates numerous environmental laws,'' adds Mr. West, whose organization already has sued the administration on the grounds that the committee set up to advise the president on how to balance economic and environmental interests did not represent all points of view - especially economic and scientific.
Spotted owl territory ranges from northern California up through western Oregon and into Washington State. Owl habitat is interspersed among other areas of public and private forest land.
In the federal forests managed by the United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Clinton plan would allow about 1.1 billion board-feet of timber to be logged each year over the next decade.
This is far less than the 4-plus billion board-feet harvested annually from these lands during the go-go years of the 1980s. (It takes about 10,000 board-feet to build a typical single-family home.)
Among the more important environmental protections included in the plan are expanded no-logging buffers along streams and rivers. Driving heavy trucks and dragging downed trees causes siltation and sedimentation that can cause problems far downstream, damaging spawning beds for migrating salmon and steelhead, whose numbers have dropped steadily in recent years.
While the spotted owl has been the focus of the controversy, other species in the Pacific Northwest also are moving toward extinction as a result of forest fragmentation. The marbled murrelet (a shore bird that nests on the ground) and several species of salmon have been officially listed under the Endangered Species Act.
But there's another kind of threatened species in the northwest: the loggers and mill workers who already are losing their jobs as a result of a court-ordered effort to preserve remaining old-growth forests.
Clinton administration officials estimate that 9,500 jobs will be lost as a result of the plan. But this is from a base year of 1992, critics say, and any realistic impact must be gauged from 1990 when logging restrictions began as a result of lawsuits.
Figured this way, the total loss (including service and support jobs tied to the timber industry) will be 58,000 throughout the region, industry supporters assert.
While environmentalists and some economists point out that timber-related jobs are a shrinking part of what is becoming a much more diverse regional economy, the job losses tend to be concentrated in small communities. Many mills have had to close or cut back operations as a result of declining timber supplies.
Environmentalists say much if not most of the job loss is tied to the export of raw logs (mainly to Japan) and modernization that allows more work to be done by fewer people.
But such debates mean little to people in places like Mill City, Oregon, a rural community 30 miles from the nearest interstate highway that expects to lose 300-400 jobs (nearly one-third the total) by the middle of this year when timber from federal sales stops flowing to the three family-owned mills there.
``We're almost at our wit's end here,'' says Tom Hirons. Mr. Hirons had a small logging business, but now he and his nine employees are unemployed and his trucks and other equipment and sit idle.
``If there's any emotion I'm feeling more than anything else it's a sense of betrayal,'' says Hirons. ``I really thought the administration was going to bring balance to the issue, but they gave environmentalists everything they want.''
Not everything was given, as the threatened lawsuits from several environmental organizations makes clear.
``The Clinton plan still doesn't deal with the perverse incentives that drive the federal agencies,'' says Jim Middaugh of the Oregon Natural Resources Council. ``The Forest Service and the BLM depend on timber sales to fund their budgets.''
So for now, the administration's main task is to get its Northwest forest plan (which was a final environmental impact statement) approved by the federal courts where the spotted owl controversy began.