The federal government lost far more than trees in allowing private companies to log in three national forests in Florida in 1996; it also managed to lose more than half a million dollars. That figure is contained in a study released this month by The Wilderness Society, an environmental organization that ranked Florida 57th among 86 money-losing timber programs managed by the federal government. Overall, according to the Society, the federal program that supports timber cuts accounting for just 4 percent of U.S. timber production lost $204 million in 1996. (Florida's share was $537,000.) The U.S. Forest Service itself acknowledges losing just $14.7 million -- a figure, according to the Society's study, that fails to take into account office costs, payments to states and a substantial portion of roadbuilding costs. "The average American has to wonder why the government is paying timber corporations to mine our forests," says William H. Meadows, the Society's president. "We're losing a lot more than money. We're also losing first-class recreation areas, wildlife habitat, fisheries and clean water." When the overlooked expenses are put back in, says Michael A. Francis, director of the group's National Forests Program, "you can see American taxpayers are taking a bath." While acknowledging that three national forests in Florida -- Ocala, Osceola and Apalachicola -- lost money selling timber rights in 1996 largely because no large timber was cut in Osceola or Apalachicola, Jim Thorsen, district ranger of the Ocala's Seminole Ranger District, insists the Society's report was "very biased." For example, he says, a portion of the Ocala timber-sale revenues were returned to local counties for roads and schools. "There's a lot you need to take into account," he says. And timber advocates point to jobs linked to the federal program and the importance of the subsidies for new businesses. Even so, The Wilderness Society says the financial losses are only the beginning of the problems caused by the federal timber program, which funds road building or reimburses timber companies in trees for roads that they have constructed. "Road building is the single most environmentally damaging process done by the Forest Service," Francis says. In pushing roads into undeveloped national forest land, the government is invading fish and wildlife habitat and increasing the hazard of wildfires. Also, once roads have been built, the areas can never be considered for higher levels of environmental protection. The politically charged issue led to two razor-thin congressional votes last year. In June, a proposal was sidetracked that would have cut $41.5 million for road-building and eliminated all $50 million budgeted for credits to timber companies building their own roads. An amendment, approved 211-209 by the House in July, cut $5.6 million for roads and half of the $50 million road-credit program from the Interior Department's spending bill. Then, in September, the Senate voted 51-49 to defeat an amendment that would have cut $10 million in road-building funds plus the entire line-item for credits. Environmentalists are hopeful that President Clinton will advocate more funding for "roadless areas" in his next budget proposal, setting the bar higher for congressional debates on the issue. There could be one formidable roadblock: the timber industry ponied up $4.2 million in 1995-1996 for congressional campaign funds.