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Clinton seeks to smooth ruffled feathers in Pacific's forest war: Rupert Cornwell reports from Portland on a bitter dispute over an endangered owl and the beleaguered timber industry

TWO summits are scheduled for Bill Clinton's current foray into these parts - and his encounter with Boris Yeltsin will be the easy one. For six hours in Oregon today, the President is chairing a conference that will call upon his every gift of compromise if the first glimmer of a solution is to be found to the 'Forest War' raging in the Pacific North-West of the US.

The gathering he has convened is as remarkable as the confrontation itself. From Washington, Mr Clinton has brought Vice-President Al Gore and no less than five members of his cabinet. In attendance will be all parties to the dispute: loggers and timber executives, conservationists, scientists and ecologists - leavened by pop singers, entertainers and maybe 25,000 demonstrators of every hue.

Indeed, the only absentee will be the cause of the fuss; Strix occidentalis caurina, or the Northern Spotted Owl, whose preservation has cost 14,000 logging industry jobs, helped drive timber prices through the roof and polarised communities across swathes of Washington, Oregon and northern California, home of the dwindling virgin forests where the owl lives.

Three years ago the bird was declared an endangered species. In 1991, as the Bush administration failed to come up with a coherent protection plan for the owl, local courts took matters into their own hands, banning logging in federal forests across the region. In doing so, they detonated a controversy.

At one level the dispute is straightforward. As Mr Bush inimitably put it during the campaign: 'Yes, we want to see that little furry-feathery guy protected, and all that. But I don't want to see 40,000 loggers thrown out of work.' The conflict, however, has become much more: a symbol of the debate over the future of America's shrinking wilderness, the competing interests of industry and the environment and the fate of myriad threatened species across the length and breadth of the country.

Nowhere, though, is the argument more venomous than here. Fourteen thousand jobs have gone since 1990; as many again are at risk. Since the late 1980s the North- West's timber output has dropped by a third - one reason why recession still grips the Pacific Coast economy. In the last six months, the price of framing lumber used in house-building has nearly doubled, jeopardising the fragile recovery of the national housing sector.

Such, says the timber industry, are the consequences of ill-considered efforts to save a few thousand breeding pairs of spotted owls. 'Save a logger, shoot an owl,' read bumper stickers across the region. But behind the hubbub, entrenched attitudes are starting to change.

However grudgingly, timbermen realise that the halcyon days of unfettered logging are gone for good. Privately, they acknowledge that the 1973 Endangered Species Act, which opponents claim gives carte blanche powers to environmentalists, is here to stay. A recent US Forest Service study has found that not just the owl but 600 plant and animal species in the old North-West forests are at risk.

First and foremost among them are many local salmon varieties, close to extinction because of the damage done to spawning grounds by logging debris which enters the river system. The plight of the salmon, which generate thousands of jobs in both sporting and commercial fishing, may not be high on the agenda in Portland. But fishermen will send a protest flotilla along the Columbia river, which flows through Oregon's biggest city, to make sure their grievances are not lost on Mr Clinton.

The President will deal with this babel of complaints in the way that is second nature to him. He will listen to the different points of view at the three 'round tables' which are the centrepiece of the conference and 'seek to understand'. Within months the administration promises to come up with a policy, but even Mr Clinton is under few illusions. His final position, he says, 'will probably make everybody mad'.

Even so, its outlines may be guessed at. They include government implementation of a conservation strategy allowing the legal ban to be lifted ('the courts are not the place to manage our forests,' says Elizabeth Furse, an Oregon Congresswoman) and measures to speed diversification of the local economy, reducing its dependence on the timber industry.

Thereafter logging on federal land will be permitted, but managed in such a fashion as to preserve areas where a complete forest eco-system - including the spotted owl - can survive. And the case of the even humbler Californian gnatcatcher suggests it can be done.

Almost unnoticed amid the owl rumpus, Bruce Babbitt, the Interior Secretary, last week struck exactly such a compromise between developers, environmentalists and the California state government to save the threatened songbird, which lives in what little coastal scrubland remains between Los Angeles and San Diego. Where the gnatcatcher leads, might not Strix occidentalis caurina follow?

(Photograph omitted)