THE political struggle over developing natural resources for short-term economic gain versus conservation for future generations has a long, lively, and sometimes bitter history. This is particularly true in the American West, where the tradition of rugged individualism is strong but where much of the landscape is managed in trust for the public by federal agencies.In recent years, legislative compromises have been reached to provide some balance between environmental protection and economic development and also to avoid the manipulation and sometimes intimidation of professional land managers by interest groups. But the weakness of those land-use laws - and, more importantly, a fundamental shift in public values now emerging within federal agencies - is reflected in the recent forced transfer for political reasons of two senior professionals with the United States Forest Service and the National Park Service. The two are Lorraine Mintzmyer, who was director of the Park Service's Rocky Mountain region before being ordered to Philadelphia starting last week, and John Mumma, former northern regional forester responsible for 13 national forests covering 25 million acres, who resigned rather than transfer back to agency headquarters in Washington. Each has given decades of service and won a long list of awards and promotions. The two appeared last month before the House subcommittee on civil service, which has responsibility for whistle-blower protection. Mr. Mumma detailed what he called the "undue interference and pressure by political figures in the management of the northern region ... designed to force me to make decisions unwarranted by existing law." Specifically, he was pressured by members of the Montana and Idaho congressional delegations to cut more timber than he felt should be allowed under federal laws. "I find it strange that I am reassigned from the Forest Service's northern region for meeting approximately 85 percent of my timber target, when the national average for the entire Forest Service is closer to 65 percent in 1991," Mumma told the subcommittee. Ms. Mintzmyer's case involves her role as head of a multi-agency federal effort over the past several years to plan for the future of Yellowstone National Park and the ecosystem that surrounds it. A key issue here is the mining, logging, recreational, and other economic activities that have been directly encroaching on Yellowstone or impacting the nearby rivers and other wildlife habitat that help keep the park as natural as possible. The 60-page draft plan (titled "Vision for the Future, A Framework for Coordination in the Greater Yellowstone Area") emphasized that a "sense of naturalness" should be maintained. Members of the Wyoming congressional delegation met privately with senior executive branch officials (Mintzmyer was excluded from the meeting), and shortly thereafter she says she was chewed out by her Interior Department boss, who told her that the "vision document" for Yellowstone would have to be revised, that the project was being taken over by agency headquarters, and that White House staff chief John Sununu had been pressuring for the changes. When the final Yellowstone planning document was released, it had been whittled from 60 pages to 11 and the reference to a "sense of naturalness" had been expunged. In addition, Mintzmyer testified, senior officials told her she could remain in a senior Park Service position in the West only if she kept quiet about the episode. She decided to speak out instead. Ed Marston, publisher of the Colorado biweekly High Country News, observes that "the political mugging of federal land managers is not new." In the case of Mumma and Mintzmyer, he charges, "the executive branch resorted to attempted blackmail and intimidation." Meeting in Vail, Colo., last week, Park Service officials and interested observers mulled over the many problems faced by national parks today. More money is needed to handle the ever-increasing influx of visitors. But just as important is the kind of leadership that stands up (as EPA administrator William Reilly did at the meeting) and says, "Smite the encroachers!" Much better to do that than knuckle under to special interests and force out good people like Lorraine Mintzmyer and John Mumma.