The U.S. Forest Service's failure to abide by a plan to end discrimination against women employees in California may cost the government nearly $2 million and bring a contempt of court citation against Agriculture Secretary Richard E. Lyng.

The Justice Department, representing Lyng and the Forest Service, has decided not to resist the penalties that were recommended by a magistrate to U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Conti in San Francisco. Conti is not expected to make a final ruling for several weeks.

Magistrate Claudia Wilken, appointed to monitor Forest Service compliance with a 1981 consent decree designed to upgrade women employees, has recommended that a $1.5 million fund be set up to insure compliance, that another $360,000 be allocated to monitor the order and that the decree be extended three years.

Wilken also recommended that Lyng, as the executive branch overseer of the Forest Service, be found in contempt for the agency's behavior in the case, which affects

about 1,500 female workers in California.

The magistrate found that the Forest Service had complied with less than half of 162 provisions in the consent agreement that would end discrimination and barriers to promotion of women. The decree would have increased the number of women by as much as 43 percent in some job categories.

The case began in 1973 when Gene C. Bernardi, a Forest Service sociologist at Berkeley, Calif., charged that she was denied a promotion because of sex discrimination. Four years later, the court expanded the case to cover all women in the agency after finding they were underrepresented in jobs and pay grades.

The decree agreement reached in 1981 between the plaintiffs and the Forest Service was to have given the agency five years to broaden opportunities for women employees and to train supervisors to comply with equal-opportunity law.

Equal Rights Advocates (ERA), a San Francisco legal group that represents the women, went back to court last summer, charging that the Forest Service had failed to abide by the agreement and asking that Lyng be held in contempt.

ERA attorney Judith E. Kurtz said at the time that "Justice's refusal to accept the use of numerical goals and timetables as a remedy for discrimination has made resolution of the dispute impossible. I think the major difference is that what the women want are jobs, and the Department of Justice seems to think that putting women's names on eligibility lists for jobs is enough."

Although the case dates from 1973 and the decree from 1981, long before Lyng became secretary, Forest Service resistance became an embarrassment to the department after Lyng in 1986 issued a strong order against racial and sexual discrimination in the Agriculture Department.

Justice Department attorneys for months had fought attempts by ERA to force the Forest Service to fully comply with the consent decree. Echoing the administration's opposition to job quotas, Justice Department lawyers argued that the court-ordered remedies were not legal.

The Justice Department, which also had resisted Agriculture Department recommendations to settle the matter, decided to stop resisting in December. Lyng said last week that he had never discussed the case with Attorney General Edwin Meese III, but three other sources indicated that Meese had been involved before Lyng became secretary in 1986.

"The Department of Justice did a tremendous disservice to USDA," said Nancy Davis, executive director of the California legal group. "Even though it is an equal employment opportunity matter, Justice was sticking to its guns that it was not."