The U.S. government recently took a major step forward on saving the world's forests. Unfortunately, it now seems ready to take a step back.

President Clinton has made a bold push for preservation in perpetuity of this country's last vast roadless regions. He has instructed the Forest Service to propose a rule that would protect more than 40 million acres of federal lands. Much is forested and has long been eyed by both loggers and environmentalists.However, most of the world's wild forests are not in the United States. And it is beyond our borders that the president is about to step back.

No concrete commitments to slow global deforestation have emerged from 10 years of talks at the United Nations. Logging, mining, colonization and agricultural expansion are rapidly eroding the last remaining intact forests in Southeast Asia, South America, Africa, Russia and Canada.

Some governments, led by Canada, have cynically pushed for a treaty on forests knowing full well that negotiation of the agreement would be a long, drawn-out excuse for more talk while business-as-usual prevails.

The U.S. government has done well to oppose the treaty, but has not used its powerful position to lead. It has lacked creative ideas about what can be done internationally to save the world's last great forests.

Furthermore, the ironic result of increased forest protection in the United States is greater pressure on forests elsewhere as foreign loggers move to substitute our domestic timber supplies. This is of paramount importance as most of the world's rich diversity of plants and animals is found in threatened tropical forests.

A key opportunity exists for renewed U.S. leadership on forest issues as representatives of the world's nations meet at the World Trade Organization's ministerial meeting in Seattle, a summit President Clinton himself will attend.

The United States is a leading proponent of controversial WTO proposals to eliminate remaining tariff barriers for forest products - such as plywood, chipboard, flooring, furniture - and in the process spur greater global trade and consumption of these goods.

Supporters argue that such a move would stimulate global economic growth and promote efficient use of natural resources through greater competition. It would probably also benefit major U.S. forest products companies like Weyerhaeuser, Georgia Pacific and International Paper, which see overseas markets as the opportunity for continued business growth.

Unfortunately, the equation is not so simple.

Environmentally harmful side effects could also result from the WTO tree-trade proposals. According to a new study from the World Resources Institute and the Center for International Environmental Law, the proposals - if implemented - will put yet more pressure on threatened forests in countries where less scrupulous companies routinely ignore weakly enforced environmental laws.

But maybe we can enjoy the benefits of free trade with fewer of these troubling side effects. This depends on countries choosing to emulate Clinton's bold domestic forest protection moves. He should help them do so in two ways.

First, he should urge the world's dozen most forest-rich regions - including Canada, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia and Central Africa - that together house a remarkable 90 percent of remaining intact global forest resources, to follow his leadership and commit to similarly sweeping protection of wild forests. A White House conference on global forest protection could be the first step.

Second, he should lead the Group of 7 wealthy nations in establishing a global forest protection fund to help poorer nations achieve this lofty target. It's perfectly reasonable for cash-poor but forest-rich nations to receive some compensation for forgoing short-term income in exchange for helping to maintain the global ecological balance.

A substantial U.S. financial commitment should stimulate others to follow suit. G-7 nations are already working together to conserve rain forest in Brazil.

Clinton could also help focus a booming base of U.S. private philanthropy led by the new billionaires. Many are making historic commitments to forest conservation from the temperate rain forests of the Pacific Northwest to the tropical forests of South America. Financial resources for forest conservation are available - all that is needed is greater leadership.

Given his recent domestic push for forests, President Clinton is perfectly placed to lead the charge. His legacy would last long into the next millennium, enriched by the millions of species of plants and animals that will otherwise face extinction, the thousands of indigenous cultures that depend on ancient forests - not to mention possible future discoveries of rain forest wonder-drugs - and the stability of global ecological processes.