A long-smoldering, emotion-ridden political wildfire - the wilderness issue - is flaring once again. The reason for this most recent outbreak is a series of pending and already-issued leases for mineral, oil, and gas exploration in the nation's existing and proposed wilderness areas.
Spearheaded by US Interior Secretary James G. Watt, the Reagan administration has made no secret of its intention to open public lands previously ''locked up'' - protected from development by petroleum and mineral companies.
Assembled in the last two decades, wilderness areas are roadless areas that are to be kept in a totally natural state. All vehicles are banned. The only access is by foot or horse.
But for the last nine months, Secretary Watt has been stripping, greasing, and rebuilding federal leasing and permit machinery. Part of this effort has been to use budget cuts to purge the Interior Department of individuals with incompatable political and economic philosophies, following the conservative Heritage Foundation's guidelines.
More visibly, the revamping has been engineered to reduce regulations - what the administration has called ''excessive red tape'' - that have restricted access of drillers and miners to certain public lands for more than a decade.
''Overall, Interior has achieved 55 percent of our short-term goals, which is not too bad considering the difficulty they've had getting qualified people onboard,'' observes Robert Terrell, author of the Interior section of the Heritage Foundation's recent ''report card'' on the administration requested by presidential counselor Edwin Meese III.
The results are just starting to emerge from this shortened bureaucratic pipeline. ''We have already reduced the cost of preparing an environmental impact statement from $600,000 to $60,000 and cut the time required in half,'' Bureau of Land Management (BLM) director Robert Burford told miners at a recent conference.
Conservationists agree that federal environmental studies had become unreasonably long and expensive. But they believe the pendulum is swinging too far in the other direction.
For example, they point to the trend toward substituting less comprehensive environmental assessments that omit public participation for more detailed environmental impact statements.
The first wave of Interior Department actions affecting wilderness areas include:
* A favorable recommendation accompanying a draft environmental impact statement on oil and gas exploration in the Washakie wilderness area adjacent to Yellowstone National Park.
* Permission granted without public notification for slant drilling under the Capitan wilderness area in New Mexico.
* An exploration lease issued in an Arkansas wilderness area, accompanied by only a three-page environmental assessment.
* The BLM prepared similarly brief environmental assessments for proposed exploratory uranium drilling in the Fifty Mile Mountain Wilderness Study Area in Utah.
* The US Forest Service has been looking favorably upon proposed oil and gas leases in California's Los Padres National Forest, which contains several wilderness areas and is part of the proposed Big Sur National Park.
And these may only be the tip of the iceberg. Overall, applications for oil, gas, and mineral exploration are pending on 182 wilderness and proposed wilderness areas, according to a Wilderness Society compilation.
Predictably, the conservation community and liberal Democratic congressmen have denounced these moves. But surprisingly, a number of conservative Western Republicans also have expressed serious concern over the actions.
After the Wilderness Society discovered and publicized the Capitan leases OK'd in September, Rep. Manuel Lujan Jr. (R) of New Mexico threatened to introduce a resolution to ban all oil, gas, and minerals exploration in the wilderness system in the lower 48 states.
cl11 Utilizing an emergency provision in the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, it would only take a majority vote of the House Interior Committee to order such a ban for three years. The Interior Committee, for the first time, invoked this provision earlier this year to protect the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana. This action is being challenged in court.
Subsequently Representative Lujan withdrew his resolution after Watt promised that Congress would receive 30-day advance notification of future wilderness leases.
''We didn't even know in my office that the (Capitan) leases had been issued, '' admits BLM's Burford. ''You can bet that won't happen again,'' he adds wrily. Despite the controversy, Watt applauded the regional BLM official who okayed the lease applications.
But Watt's promise was not enough for a number of other congressmen. Provoked by the recommendation to allow oil and gas exploration on 20,000 acres of the Washakie, Rep. Richard Cheney (R) of Wyoming engineered a compromise with Interior Committee chairman Morris K. Udall (D) of Arizona. The compromise requested a moratorium on further leases until June 1, 1982 - a measure the interior secretary reportedly agreed to. Thus, determination of the future of the wilderness system has been temporarily deferred.
While the interior secretary and his representatives repeatedly have declared that they have no intention of opening the national parks to mining and drilling , conservation leaders maintain that the declaration is a red herring. They argue that the real issue has been the fate of the nation's 80 million acre wilderness system.
According to the latest New York Times-CBS poll on the subject, the public is evenly divided on the issue of oil and gas leasing in wilderness areas. Yet the survey also indicates that support for the environment is surprisingly bipartisan, as the actions of Republicans Lujan and Cheney attest. As a result, confusion prevails on Capitol Hill.
''This is the kind of issue congressmen hate. It is detailed and programmatic. And there is no clear public position,'' observes Anthony Stout of the Government Research Corporation.