"Now, that is an old-growth tree!" shouts Jerry Franklin on a September day in the hills above Roseburg, Ore. A mammoth Douglas fir towers 10 stories above, dwarfing everything around it. Sunlight filters down through the thick canopy to a group of about 20 University of Washington students. "You can really see who the veterans in this stand are," Franklin says.

Of anyone on the planet, he should know. A professor of ecosystem analysis at the university since 1986, Franklin, in suspenders and wide-brimmed hat, is a white-mustached veteran himself, having studied the woods for more than five decades. In the 1980s, he was among the first to show that Pacific Northwest old-growth forests were far from the biological deserts many thought them to be -- that, in fact, they are a vital ecosystem teeming with diverse species, including the rare northern spotted owl.

Franklin's research helped spark the bitter timber wars between loggers and environmentalists in the late 1980s, which largely shut down timber sales on some 24 million acres of federal land in the Pacific Northwest in the early '90s. Ultimately, he was among those called in by President Clinton to help draft a plan to end the conflict.

The 1994 Northwest Forest Plan set out to protect the spotted owl and hundreds of other species by preserving most of the remaining federal old-growth forest within a network of reserves in Oregon, Washington and Northern California, while leaving nearly a million old-growth acres for logging. Meanwhile, it tried to shift timber-dependent communities into new, more sustainable livelihoods. It would become one of the hallmark environmental policies of the century.

Two decades later, however, both the spotted owl and many timber communities are still in trouble. The bird has edged even closer to extinction, thanks in large part to the unforeseen invasion of its more aggressive cousin, the barred owl, and to big fires that have torn through its habitat. Meanwhile, timber towns are suffering due to several complex factors, including the fact that loggers have been able to harvest only about half of the 1.1 billion board-feet per year expected under the Northwest Forest Plan.

Nowhere is the economic impact to timber country more acute than in western Oregon, where deep budget cuts have forced counties that rely on federal aid to go so far as releasing prisoners from jails. Federal forest managers -- under pressure from their bosses in Washington and state and federal lawmakers -- are trying new ways of logging that would provide more revenue to communities while still protecting the forest. But attempts to increase the cut -- or even bypass the Northwest Forest Plan altogether -- are escalating an all-too-familiar tension over timber country.

In 2010, then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar tapped Franklin and his longtime comrade Norm Johnson, an Oregon State University professor of forest policy, to design eight pilot timber-sale projects to demonstrate the administration's "active management" policy, which tries to combine logging with forest restoration. Although the pilot projects seek a middle ground, they've revived old debates at the heart of the timber conflict, including the very meanings of terms like "old growth" and "clear-cut."

In the forest near Roseburg, Franklin shows his students the most controversial project, the White Castle timber sale. Colorful flagging surrounds the old giants that will be protected, but most of the century-old stand, which is spotted owl habitat, will be cleared and sent to local mills. Then the forest will be left to recover on its own. It's far more intensive than the thinning now standard in federal forests, but gentler than the plantation-style clearcuts on state and private lands. Franklin calls this new harvest model "ecological forestry."

Many environmentalists, however, see nothing ecological about the project. To them, it's just another excuse to clear-cut virgin forests to feed outdated lumber mills -- and that, they fear, could set a dangerous precedent.

"It really is challenging the way people think about forests and what is good and bad," Johnson admits. With the first pilot projects already logged, "We're asking them to put aside the way they thought about that before and hear a new story."