WASHINGTON (AP) _ A majority of people in the Pacific Northwest believes the potential loss of jobs is too great a price to pay for protecting the northern spotted owl and old growth timber, according to a poll released today by a timber industry group.

The poll sponsored by the Timber Industry Labor Management Committee also found that resolving the controversy over the spotted owl came in fourth when people were asked which, of a list of problems, was the most important one for officials to solve first.

Improving public education was first, with 37 percent, followed by protecting jobs and reducing unemployment at 19 percent. Balancing the state budget was next at 14, followed by the spotted owl at 12.

The telephone survey of 600 adults in Washington and Oregon was conducted by Cambridge Reports of Cambridge, Mass., by telephone from June 20-23. The margin of error was 4 percentage points.

Those surveyed were asked: ''To protect the spotted owl and old-growth timber, is the potential loss of jobs for people in the forest products and related industries an acceptable risk for you, or not?''

Fifty-four percent said no, 37 percent yes and 9 percent not sure.

''People indeed want good environment, they want a good, solid solution, we believe, for the old growth-spotted owl controversy, but they do not want to sacrifice tens of thousands of jobs in order to find that solution,'' said Denny Scott, an economist with the Carpenters Union.

The union, along with the Western Council of Industrial Workers, the International Woodworkers of America, the American Forest Resource Alliance and the National Forest Products Association, made up the sponsoring committee.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is working on plans to set aside 11.6 million acres of forests in three Northwest states as habitat for the northern spotted owl. In the meantime, the Forest Service has been blocked from selling timber on more than 66,000 acres in Washington, Oregon and Northern California.

In the survey, 68 percent of those responding said that setting aside large forest areas to protect the spotted owl and old-growth timber would have a significant negative economic impact.