HARRISONBURG, VA. -- Devising a plan that will make the best use of the George Washington National Forest's million-plus acres of woodland is no easy task, but David Plunkett says he is up to the challenge as the forest's first planning officer.

Plunkett arrived Dec. 7 in Virginia to work out a plan that will be acceptable to at least a majority of the divergent groups that have a stake in the forest.

Criticism from many groups has brought George Washington's 10-year management plan, unveiled last year, almost to a standstill.

Conservationists have charged that the plan calls for too much timber harvesting and road building and criticized its use of clear-cutting. At the other end of the spectrum, loggers have said the plan is not generous enough in setting timbering quotas.

But Plunkett is optimistic a compromise can be reached between the two extremes.

A quick study indicates that many of the problems facing the George Washington are the same as those of the national forests in Colorado, where Plunkett had been working.

The George Washington stretches from Strasburg almost to Roanoke, and Plunkett probably will get to see only a tiny fraction of it before a Jan. 14 meeting with all those who have challenged the forest's latest management proposal.

The meeting, scheduled in Harrisonburg, is to let each group express its concerns and see where there may be areas of agreement that can be built on to develop a plan.

"I'm not sure what my role will be -- whether I'll be a player or just a bystander listening" at the meeting, Plunkett said this week. "It is going to take me a little while to get up to speed."

After graduating from Penn State in 1975, Plunkett spent almost 10 years taking inventory of national forests from New York to Montana to Colorado. Then he got into forest planning for national forests in Colorado.

He has set an August 1989 target date for a George Washington management plan.