THOSE who patrol the nation's forests and rangelands traditionally have been thought of as grown-up Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts - ''trustworthy, loyal, helpful, and friendly.''
But in the West, those in charge of managing federal lands have become targets for antigovernment rhetoric, harassment, and sometimes violence. In essence, they are caught in the political crossfire over who should control the wide open spaces.
''There has been a constant drumbeat of demonizing diatribe against federal employees and the regulations they enforce - particularly federal environmental laws,'' says Jeff DeBonis, a former United States Forest Service employee who now heads the private watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
''In 1994 alone, 207 Park Service employees were assaulted,'' says US Rep. George Miller (D) of California. ''Offices of the Bureau of Land Management have been bombed, guns have been drawn on park rangers and agents of the Fish and Wildlife Service, and there have been multiple direct threats of bloodshed against other officers.''
At a special hearing on Capitol Hill this week, witnesses cited examples of intimidation and attack against government employees and their families.
Ranchers and Rangers Clash in West
Among these: threatening phone calls to the home of the manager of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon; an explosion at Forest Service ranger district headquarters in Carson City, Nev., in March; a Forest Service biologist shot at last month in California; a pipe bomb found last week in the Gila Wilderness Area in New Mexico.
''Our people want to do their job, but they don't feel safe,'' says US Forest Service spokesman Chris Holmes in Washington.
There always has been tension between those who use resources on federal lands - loggers, ranchers, miners - and those charged with enforcing land-management laws and regulations.
Rangeland experts say much of the West has been overgrazed, for example. They assert that ranchers holding grazing permits should limit the number of cattle and where their herds roam. But this does not sit well with ranchers, many of whom have come to view the federal land on which they hold grazing allotments as private property.
But that tension has been exacerbated in recent years as growing numbers of local officials - backed by so-called wise-use advocates in industry and grass-roots groups - push for control over federal lands. Some 35 counties have passed ''county supremacy'' ordinances claiming such control, according to federal officials, and another 35 or so are moving in that direction.
Confrontation came to a head last year when a local commissioner from Nye County, Nev., bulldozed open a Forest Service road that was closed to public use and threatened to arrest federal rangers who told him to stop. In March, the US Justice Department filed a civil lawsuit to stop Nye County from seizing control of federal lands and intimidating federal officials.
In the meantime, legislators and county commissioners in 12 Western states have formed the Western States Coalition. The group's agenda includes shifting control of US Bureau of Land Management lands to county officials.
Congress also has become embroiled in the controversy over Western lands, particularly as conservative Republicans have taken charge. Lawmakers from rural Western states have been outspoken in their criticism of land-management agencies and what they call the Clinton administration's ''war on the West.''
Washington wages same battle
In April, Rep. Barbara Cubin (R) of Wyoming was quoted in the Caspar (Wyo.) Star Tribune as saying the Second Amendment to the US Constitution (upholding the right to own firearms) ''was passed so people could defend themselves from their government.''
Critics say such statements fuel an already-volatile atmosphere against federal land-management agencies.
When all 21 Democrats on the House Resources Committee asked chairman Don Young (R) of Alaska to hold a hearing on the ''extensive record of personal threats and acts of violence'' against employees of such agencies, Mr. Young refused.
''I am committed to protecting federal employees,'' Young responded. But he also expressed sympathy for ''the rising tide of anger and resentment ... the acute sense of frustration ... the heartfelt emotions'' of those opposed to ''the intrusive and impoverishing federal-land policies enacted by Congresses of the last two decades.''
Democrats went ahead and scheduled their own public meeting, which drew a large crowd of speakers and observers Tuesday. No Republican committee members attended.
Safety in numbers
In response to what is perceived as an increasingly charged atmosphere, agency officials are taking precautions. Field employees for the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (which oversee some 460 million acres, most of it in the West) have been told to travel together in unmarked vehicles, to maintain radio contact, and to avoid potential conflict.
Many such employees and their families live in remote rural towns where they attend the same schools and churches as their political adversaries. Federal officials say they're making a special effort to improve relations with county commissioners and civic organizations.
''We're focusing on those relationships and trying to help people better understand what our roles and responsibilities are,'' Mr. Holmes says.