After three months of agonizing deliberations, the Bush administration yesterday unveiled a plan for protecting the Pacific Northwest's threatened spotted owl that calls for a 17 percent reduction in timber harvests for a year but leaves a long-term solution to Congress.

An administration task force, charged in June with striking a balance between preserving the owls and protecting the livelihood of loggers, issued a three-page press release that appeared to embrace the main recommendations of a scientific panel that last spring called for preserving large chunks of the ancient, "old-growth" forests where the owls live.

At the same time, however, the task force proposed a variety of legislative solutions to the stalemate, including a recommendation that Congress convene a Cabinet-level committee empowered to grant exemptions to the Endangered Species Act in times of severe economic and social distress. Under the act the owl has been declared a threatened species, meaning land management agencies are required to come up with a plan for its recovery.

Environmentalists and timber industry spokesmen responded with confusion and disappointment to the administration plan, and the reception was lukewarm at best on Capitol Hill, where several congressmen dismissed it as unrealistic and politically inspired.

"The administration is bowing to {the scientific panel} without admitting it," said an aide to Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.). "They've set up impossible escapes . . . . For the politicians, this is a game of who's going to take the blame."

The spotted owl has proved a tough political challenge for Bush, who pledged during his election campaign to be "the environmental president" while insisting on the preservation of jobs and economic growth. The administration estimated earlier this summer that saving the owl could cost 20,000 timber-related jobs by the end of the century, but an administration official said yesterday that 10,000 would be a more accurate number.

The owl has become the focal point in a larger battle over the future of the Pacific Northwest's ancient forests, towering stands of spruce and Douglas fir concentrated mostly on federal lands on the western slope of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington. Spotted owls nest in the canopies of old, dead trees, and the dense canopy helps hide them from predators.

Among the more surprising aspects of yesterday's announcement was the lack of surprises. Soon after the spotted owl was officially listed as a threatened species in June, the administration convened a task force, chaired by Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter, to find an alternative to the scientific panel's recommendations.

But testimony by outside experts helped convince the task force that there was no real alternative to the panel's owl strategy, known as the Thomas report after its principal author, U.S. Forest Service researcher Jack Ward Thomas.

"This is not a perfect answer, because a perfect answer does not exist," Yeutter said in a joint statement with Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. "But it is the beginning of a good balance."

In yesterday's report, the task force called for reducing the timber harvest on Forest Service lands in Oregon and Washington to 3.2 billion board feet, down from this year's level of 3.85 billion board feet. While that is substantially higher than the 2.6 billion-board-foot level that Thomas's strategy implied, administration officials said they had identified new sources of timber that would not conflict with protecting the owl.

"The real point is that it respects the basic integrity of Thomas," an administration official said of the task force proposal. "Even though you might call it a short-term solution, it is going to set the tone."

But environmentalists questioned whether the harvest level proposed by the administration would withstand court challenges under the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws. "They've come up with a plan that can't pass a test of the environmental laws of the nation," said Fran Hunt of the National Wildlife Federation.

And the timber industry accused the administration of failing in its search for a balanced solution. David Ford, a spokesman for the National Forest Products Association, said, "We were deeply saddened to see the imbalance reflected in the recommendations."

Congress is considering proposals aimed at resolving the conflict, and is under no obligation to follow the administration's proposals. But many lawmakers had looked to the task force for a clear signal on what to do.