In the next decade, the uneasy attempt to balance human progress with preservation of the Earth and its wild inhabitants will touch virtually every Idaho resident.

How it is enforced in the next decade could affect everything from electric rates to how much water is available to irrigate Idaho's famous potatoes.At stake is nothing less than the future of the Pacific Northwest.

Called "an American hinterland" by noted University of Idaho historian Carlos Schwantes, the region stretches from vast old-growth forests of coastal Oregon and Washington to the Continental Divide country of Montana, the blooming deserts of eastern Idaho and the natural wonders of Yellowstone.

The natural character of most of the continental United States is already gone. But the Pacific Northwest - because of its isolation, Schwantes says - is only now reaching the stage in its development where wild, species-rich landscapes and waterways may be changed forever by bulldozers, hydroelectric dams or condominiums.

Moreover, the future of the Endangered Species Act itself may rest on the outcome of this region's environmental battles. In particular, the future of Pacific salmon and the act may be inseparable.

If Snake River salmon are placed on the endangered species list, restrictions imposed by the act "literally could cover all activities within the watershed," said senator-elect Larry Craig, R-Idaho.

But the effects of listing salmon will spread from beyond the borders of the Pacific Northwest to throughout the nation.

Federal scientists are studying several stocks of Snake River and Columbia River salmon to see if they should be listed as threatened or endangered species. The ramifications for the region are widespread:

- Most plans to restore salmon stocks would restrict the operations of the Columbia and Snake river hydroelectric dams, costing ratepayers money. Significant changes could force the Bonneville Power Administration to seek new power sources such as nuclear or coal-fired plants.

- The region's $5 billion irrigated farming industry would face new controls and restrictions.

- Navigation on the Columbia and logging, grazing and mining on public lands could be curtailed.

The effect of the decision goes beyond the Pacific Northwest. The National Marine Fisheries Service will have to define the distinct populations that deserve protection under the act.