The Clinton administration released a study recently on the environmental impact of free trade that has negated a major argument by opponents of worldwide tariff elimination in forest products.

The study, prepared by the office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the Council on Environmental Quality, concluded that:* International trade is not a major factor affecting global forest conditions.

* Tariff liberalization will increase world trade in forest products by a maximum of 2 percent by 2010.

* This will increase global timber harvests by only 0.5 percent by 2010.

* Tariff liberalization ''will have no distinguishable impacts'' on U.S. timber harvests or on the proportion of harvests from developing (tropical forest) countries.

These findings cut the ground from under vocal opponents of tariff liberalization under the Accelerated Tariff Liberalization (ATL) proposal that will come before the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting that convenes Nov. 30 in Seattle.

Those groups, mainly environmental extremists and others opposed to free trade in forest products, have been highly vocal in their contention that ATL will lead to over-cutting of forests in the United States and around the world, especially in countries with tropical forests. Forest products is one of eight industrial sectors that come under the ATL proposal.

The study was initiated earlier this year after environmental groups, reacting to the announcement that the WTO ministers would take up ATL at the Seattle meeting, complained that tariff reductions for forest products would lead to environmental degradation.

The trade representative's office and the council led a team of inter-agency experts analyzing the economic and environmental effects of the ATL initiative, with input from the public.

The study's findings confirmed the U.S. forest-products industry's long-held belief that global tariff liberalization will have little or no adverse impact on the U.S. and world forest environments.

It also showed that liberalization will be a boon to our overall economy by reducing the incentive for other countries to build production capacity beyond the needs of the market. The result will be to keep high-paying manufacturing jobs here in the United States.

Global overcapacity and high tariffs, particularly in developing countries, have been especially harmful to the U.S. industry. Some foreign tariffs reach as high as 45 percent in Malaysia for wood products and 22 percent in Brazil for paper products. By comparison, the U.S. currently has no or very low tariffs on forest products.

The United States is a mature market for forest products, so our growth as an industry depends on opening overseas markets. High tariffs are protecting inefficient, wasteful industries and discouraging trade in high-value forest products where American producers have an edge. Eliminating tariffs will encourage production by the most efficient countries, such as ours, and provide an incentive for sustainable forestry.

Needless to say, tariff reduction in forest products will not solve the world's tropical-deforestation problems, most of which stem from forest-land conversion for farming and the need for wood to heat homes. But it could help.

Because trade drives economic growth, it enhances environmental improvement as people devote more of their time and incomes to environmental concerns. It is no coincidence that the countries with the toughest environmental laws are those with the strongest economies.

Here in the United States, for example, our industry adheres to one of the highest standards for forest protection and sustainability through a self-imposed code called the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).

The SFI is an award-winning standard that all members of the American Forest & Paper Association must adhere to as a condition of membership. It assures that our forests will be thriving for future generations at the same time that they continue to supply the products people want and need.

What is needed is for industry in all countries to adopt and apply forest standards that are as strict and comprehensive as those of the SFI. Forest industries in many countries already have agreed to principles similar to SFI. It is time for industries in all nations to adopt similar standards.

Meanwhile, tariff elimination under the ATL affords the best chance to both protect the world's forests and to maintain the leadership position of the United States as a forest-products manufacturer.