THE NORTHERN spotted owl dispute is not about the owl but about the dwindling old-growth forest in which the owl lives. Loggers want to continue cutting the forest down and say jobs will be lost if they are prevented from doing so, as environmentalists wish. The administration has waffled, saying it wants to save the owl and the jobs. Who wouldn't? The only thing the administration hasn't figured out is how.

Here's an environmental issue on which the choice should be clear. The country isn't running out of jobs, but it is running out of ancient forest. There are several definitions of what constitutes such forest, so some disagreement exists about how much is left. But by one estimate, the classic old forest remaining is equal to no more than three Rhode Islands, of which only one is protected under current law.

This is an irreplaceable resource; these forests are special and majestic areas. The country doesn't need the lumber, and for the loggers and communities involved, cutting the forest down would be only a respite. Once it was done, there would be no forests (or owls) and still no jobs. Best adapt while at least the forests are left.

The timbering dispute has gone on for years, but it has intensified as the remaining old growth declined. A national forest management act in 1976 included some provisions that in theory might have been used to halt the logging but weren't. Some land has been given protected status as wilderness or park, but this has been a limited solution. Now the Endangered Species Act has been invoked; the owl has become surrogate for its home.

The Reagan administration tried to say the owl was not a threatened species, but its decision was found baseless in court. Now the Bush administration -- Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan having first complained that the act is too confining -- has agreed that the owl is in jeopardy. But it mainly proposes to study what to do about that and in the meantime has indicated it will ask Congress 1) to immunize whatever is decided from challenge in the courts and 2) to ease the species act so a better balance can be struck between threatened species and threatened jobs.

Congress should do neither. Court-stripping is wrong, and the species act is more valuable and less onerous than the critics make it sound. Maybe the study will come up with a way to save both owl and jobs; we doubt it. The government may be able to help the affected states find other jobs. A lot of timber is now shipped out of the Northwest in raw form; if further processed at home, it could provide more jobs. But the stands of ancient timber that remain are only a fragment of what once existed, and they ought to be preserved.