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Not since the 1970s, when the snail darter took a run at a dam on the Little Tennessee River, has the Endangered Species Act been the focus of a dispute as acrimonious as that surrounding the northern spotted owl.

The Tellico Dam was eventually completed, but only after a lengthy and bruising battle over the darter - a tiny fish - that reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Congress and the Carter White House.At stake in the spotted owl showdown is the fate of some of the oldest forests on earth and the role of logging, so rich a part of the heritage of the Pacific Northwest, in the economic future of Washington state, Oregon and northern California.

A medium-sized, mostly nocturnal bird, the spotted owl is fiercely territorial and nests almost exclusively in the cathedral-like ancient forests of the Northwest. The trees in these stands average 500 years in age with some of the giants up to 1,000 years old.

When the first settlers arrived in the early 1800s, more than 20 million acres of old-growth forest dominated the landscape. No one is quite sure how much remains with estimates ranging from 2 million acres to 6 million acres.

But if current levels of logging continue over the next half-century, the only suitable spotted owl habitat remaining may be in wilderness areas and the national parks.

Environmentalists have used the owl as part of a campaign aimed at halting logging of these virgin stands of timber, the bulk of which are on federal land.

Old-growth timber is among the most coveted by the industry and dozens of one-mill towns in the Northwest are economically dependent on logs cut in federal forests.

The National Forest Products Association claims that protection of the owl could result in the elimination of 280,000 direct and indirect jobs in the Northwest.

Conservationists say those estimates are "hysterical" and peg the job loss at about 2,300. They also insist that if all the remaining spotted owl habitat is protected the timber harvest on federal lands would be reduced no more than 25 percent over the next 50 years.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that about 1,500 breeding pair pairs of owls remain, and that without protection, their numbers could be cut in half by the year 2050.