After three months of agonizing deliberations, the Bush administration Friday unveiled a plan for protecting the Pacific Northwest's threatened spotted owl that calls for a 20 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 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.

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 members of Congress Friday dismissed it as unrealistic and politically inspired.

The spotted owl has proved a tough political challenge for Bush, who pledged during his election campaign to 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 Friday 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.