WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Clinton administration, bracing for a congressional fight over the Endangered Species Act, moved Tuesday toward easing logging restrictions on private lands where northern spotted owls live in Washington and California.

``It is not a secret that the Endangered Species Act is likely to be under great stress in Congress over the next two years,'' Assistant Interior Secretary George Frampton Jr. said in unveiling the proposed rule change.

``What the Clinton administration is trying to do across the country is to demonstrate we can make the Endangered Species Act work,'' Frampton said from Seattle in a teleconference with reporters.

Frampton, who oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service, said dramatic cutbacks in logging on national forests and other federal lands in the region in recent years has made it possible to relax protection of the threatened bird on most private lands.

The proposed rule would ``for the first time under the Endangered Species Act provide special relief for small and medium-sized land owners,'' he said.

About 80 percent of the private forests in Washington state would enjoy relief from existing owl protection under the proposed rule change _ a total of about 5 million acres, Frampton said.

The more stringent protection would remain in effect on six areas of special importance to the owl, including much of Washington's Olympic Peninsula, home to the only temperate rain forest in North America.

But even within those ``special emphasis areas,'' owners of less than 80 acres would be exempt from restrictions.

Outside the special areas, land owners would be required to protect 70 acres of forest surrounding a known owl nest. Currently, the no-logging ``circles'' around owl nests run as large as 5,600 acres, Interior Department officials said.

Timber industry leaders and Northwest members of Congress welcomed the news, but environmentalists raised concerns about the impact on the owls.

``I believe this holds great promise for private land owners who have lived under tremendous uncertainty for far too long,'' said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., who represents the Olympic Peninsula.

W. Henson Moore, president of the American Forest & Paper Association, said, ``Based on our understanding, the rule appears to be a reasonable first step in creating cooperation between the federal government and private forest owners because it recognizes the needs of private property owners for certainty in addressing the spotted owl issue.''

But Todd True, an attorney for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund in Seattle, said, ``We're concerned that the combination of the Clinton forest plan and (the new) rule for non-federal lands won't provide enough combined protection to conserve and recover the owl,'' True said.

Another part of the proposed rule change, expected to be made final in the fall, would assure land owners who currently have no owls that they would not be hit with new logging restrictions in the future if they manage their forest in a way that attracts owls.

Frampton said that change is intended to eliminate the current incentive for owners to log their forests before they move into old-growth stages attractive to spotted owls.

The proposed rule does not apply to Oregon. Frampton said the government still is negotiating with land owners and state officials there.

The easing of restrictions would apply to about 198,000 acres of Northern California. Negotiations are continuing for other parts of California, he said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service declared the owl a threatened species in 1990, citing three decades of excessive logging as a primary threat to its survival.

Two years ago, President Clinton began implementing a Northwest forest plan that reduces logging levels on national forests in the region to less than one-fourth the annual averages of the 1980s.

U.S. District Judge William Dwyer of Seattle upheld the plan last month.