Appearing at a news conference on the Pacific Northwest's threatened spotted owl earlier this summer, F. Dale Robertson stood silently to one side as top administration officials outlined their plans for balancing loggers' jobs with preservation of the ancient, old-growth forests where the owl lives.

As the conference broke up, reporters swarmed around Robertson, who, as chief of the U.S. Forest Service, has played a critical role in what has become one of the Bush administration's most pressing environmental challenges. But aides quickly cut short the exchange. The chief had an appointment, one said, and would not be making any more comments.

In the intervening months, the usually accessible Robertson has virtually gone underground, shunning interview requests and avoiding public appearances in the face of strident attacks from environmentalists and the timber industry alike.

"Either for good or for bad, the chief is choosing not to be in the limelight at this moment," spokesman Denver James said.

Robertson's reticence is understandable. An amiable professional forester who joined the Forest Service, an Agriculture Department agency, fresh out of the University of Arkansas in 1961, Robertson, 50, presides over an organization in the throes of an identity crisis. The spotted owl is only the most visible symptom.

Environmentalists charge that excessive logging has turned many national forests into virtual tree farms, to the detriment of wildlife, fisheries and other natural assets. The timber industry warns of a looming "timber crisis" if forest managers do not find ways to sell more trees from public lands.

'A Very Tough Situation'

"We are in a very tough situation -- maybe the toughest we have ever faced as an agency," Robertson said in congressional testimony earlier this year.

Few would disagree.

For his efforts to resolve the spotted owl crisis, key congressional members from Northwestern states have rewarded Robertson with calls for his resignation. Even his own agency has rebelled. In two internal memos last year, supervisors of several Western forests warned that the agency is "out of control" and too cozy with timber interests. Other agency employees have joined a dissident group dedicated to "environmental ethics."

Despite 30,500 employees, a $3-billion budget and landlord responsibilities for 191 million acres of forests -- nearly 10 percent of the entire United States -- the Forest Service has traditionally kept a low profile. Indeed, Robertson's $83,000-a-year job is not even filled by political appointment; his wife says people still have trouble understanding exactly what he does. "Here in Washington, they think you're saying the Foreign Service," Mary Jane Robertson said.

But the controversy has exposed the agency to intense public scrutiny, and no one has felt the heat more than Robertson.

An Arkansas native who supplemented his forestry training with a public administration degree from American University, the slender, bespectacled Robertson is by all accounts approachable with a penchant for compromise and public relations. He began his career as a ranger, worked at several staff jobs in Washington, then supervised the Siuslaw and Mount Hood national forests in Oregon before returning here in 1982 as associate chief of the Forest Service.

"He's a tall, skinny guy and his shirt was always coming untucked," recalled Max Peterson, Robertson's predecessor and the man who promoted him to the associate chief's job over the heads of several higher-level officials. On the day Robertson was named to replace the retiring Peterson, the former chief recalls, Robertson showed up at work wearing mismatched shoes.

Wildlife Programs Expanded

But Peterson also remembers Robertson as the quintessential agency professional. "Dale tries to build consensus," he said. "He really wants to have everybody agree with what he works out."

Environmentalists express grudging approval of some Robertson initiatives. For example, although timber production still claims most of the agency's budget, Robertson has presided over a near doubling of expenditures for wildlife and fisheries programs. "When Dale became chief, quite frankly I didn't know where he stood," said a wildlife official in the agency. "{But} he gave us one of the strongest endorsements we've ever had."

Similarly, the agency recently released a five-year strategic plan that lists "recreation, wildlife and fisheries" as its number one priority. The document also promises a new emphasis on environmentally sound forestry, tree planting and scientific research into areas such as global warming. "It's absolutely revolutionary," the wildlife specialist said.

But Robertson also has proved himself an ardent defender of timber interests -- and has not hesititated to blame environmentalists for the paralysis afflicting logging programs in many national forests.

"We can't ignore the fact that we have a proliferation of strong, influential environmental groups teamed up with lawyers who are determined to change the way we practice forestry in this country," Robertson told a pro-development group in July. "It's getting to the point that every decision in the Forest Service has to be approached on the assumption that you're likely to end up in an appeal or in court."

Barry Flamm, a former Robertson colleague who runs forestry programs at the Wilderness Society, said he doesn't "remember any great sympathy for the environmental movement and I've never detected any since . . . I've always considered him a process person."

Flamm adds, "He talks friendly, but it's hard to figure out where his values lie."

Many environmentalists cannot forget that Robertson has presided over some of the heaviest logging of public forests in U.S. history, or his insistence last year that logging levels in the Pacific Northwest could be maintained without jeopardizing the spotted owl.

Largely out of frustration with Robertson's steadfast adherence to the status quo, national forest supervisors from several Western states warned in memos last year that the agency had lost touch with its original conservation mission.

"We are not meeting the quality land management expectations of our public and our employees," wrote supervisors from Region One, which includes 13 national forests in Montana, Idaho and the Dakotas. "The emphasis of National Forest programs does not reflect the land stewardship values . . . of many Forest Service employees and the public."

A Shift in Awareness

Rank-and-file employees, for their part, have signaled their discontent by joining the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, which has 1,500 agency members. Jeff DeBonis, a former agency forester who founded the group last year, said he sees in Robertson "a shift in awareness, but I see it as coming out of desperation, not out of foresight."

Whatever his motives, Robertson seems to have undergone something of a conversion in recent months. To the dismay of the timber industry, members of the Northwest congressional delegation and some administration officials, he has embraced the recommendations of a scientific panel that has called for preserving large tracts of old-growth forest.

Robertson has acknowledged that the plan could mean a steep drop in Northwest timber harvests, and his stand has stirred outrage from the likes of Rep. Denny Smith (R-Ore.). "Dale, for whatever reason, is sort of a political forester," Smith told reporters in calling for his resignation in May. "He has caved in to the environmental protectionist community."

But James F. Torrence, who retired last year as Forest Service regional supervisor for the Pacific Northwest, suggests another motive. "There was a time, not too long ago, when a lot of us thought we were going to be able to keep a fairly high level of timber activity and still provide for the spotted owl," he said. "{But} we just kept getting more information."