WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration set the stage yesterday for more controversy over protection of the northern spotted owl as a government panel ordered stiff new restrictions on logging in the Northwest and the administration moved promptly to dilute them.
After months of deliberation, a panel of top government scientists, convened under the Endangered Species Act, proposed stringent new measures to help restore the spotted owl population, but at a loss of an estimated 32,000 timber jobs in the Northwest region.
Almost as soon as copies of the report were distributed, however, the administration unveiled its own, admittedly weaker, proposal for saving the spotted owl, and called on Congress to enact it promptly as an alternative to the scientists' plan. Under current law, the scientists' plan takes effect unless Congress intervenes.
Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan Jr. conceded that the administration's proposal would merely preserve the owl population at current levels, rather than increase it enough to take the bird off the endangered list. But he said that it would cost only about 15,000 jobs.
The area in question includes portions of Washington state, Oregon and northern California.
The action came as yet another panel, the Endangered Species Committee (set up to resolve disputes under the 1973 act) voted to allow the sale of 13 out of 44 federal timber tracts whose transfer had beenblocked because they are prime habitats for the owl.
Although the acreage involved is relatively modest, the move is regarded as important symbolically because it reflects the administration's sentiments. The action also marks the first time that the panel has overturned a ban on such sales.
The developments effectively thrust the issue into the hands of Congress after years of struggle between environmentalists and the lumber industry.
However, it was not immediately clear precisely how lawmakers would react. Although Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., was expected to introduce the administration proposal next week, initial indications were that it was unlikely to pass.
The House Interior and Agriculture committees are working jointly on more sweeping legislation that would set aside large tracts of woodlands in the Northwest to preserve both the owls and various kinds of fish. A bill is expected this summer.
The government scientists' proposal would create 196 "designated conservation areas" that are critical to the habitat of the spotted owl and would permanently bar timber cutting in the entire region.
It would also set guidelines for managing more than 7.5 million acres of federal lands, both inside and outside the new conservation areas.
The administration's plan would take a similar approach but for a sharply reduced area, eliminating 121 of the proposed new conservation areas.
It also would shrink the area of protected federal land outside the conservation areas to only 4.9 million acres.
Reaction on both sides was as expected. Environmentalists contended that the administration was launching an assault on the Endangered Species Act, while the lumber industry gave Mr. Lujan's proposals grudging approval.
George T. Frampton Jr., president of the Wilderness Society, called the administration's plan "an unprecedented declaration of war on the use of sound science to develop sound public policy."
Mr. Lujan denied that the administration was trying to "rewrite" the act, insisting that Mr. Bush's plan would apply only to the spotted owl, not to all endangered species.
"The Endangered Species Act is driven principally by biological findings," he said in a statement explaining the administration's action. He described the alternative plan as an attempt to take account of economic considerations as well.