A POLITICAL struggle is building over ownership of wide-open spaces in the West - one that could lead to the biggest changes in federal ownership in more than a century.
At stake are lands controlled by the United States Bureau of Land Management, a combined expanse bigger than Texas and California that is rich in natural resources and natural beauty.
These holdings would be made available to states if legislation now being considered in the House and Senate is approved.
Many Western lawmakers, governors, and local officials (not to mention ranchers, miners, and other resource users) favor bringing control of these lands closer to home. Wildlife managers, environmentalists, those wanting to reform US grazing and mining policy, and Clinton administration officials are adamantly opposed.
What everyone agrees on is the scope of the proposal.
''If enacted, this legislation would represent the most sweeping change in federal land ownership since 1867, when the US bought Alaska from Russia,'' says Robert Dewey, director of habitat conservation for the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife.
The BLM controls 272 million acres in the 11 western states and Alaska. And since the nation's chief landlord oversees mineral rights on other public lands as well, the agency has at least partial jurisdiction over nearly one-third of the US land mass.
Bills authored by Rep. James Hansen (R) of Utah and Sen. Craig Thomas (R) of Wyoming would make BLM land available to states: ''administered by the government closest to the people,'' as Mr.. Hansen puts it.
Vast resources, as well as major political turf, are involved: one-third of US coal reserves, 12.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 1.4 billion barrels of oil, 170 million acres of grazing land, 48 million acres of commercially valuable forests, 35 percent of the nation's uranium reserves, 80 percent of US oil-shale reserves, billions of dollars worth of ore deposits.
Assets that are less tangible include wildlife areas, archaeological treasures, and recreation sites.
''There should be no doubt that the land and mineral transfers this bill would authorize would irrevocably change America and the American West,'' Assistant Secretary of the Interior Bonnie Cohen told a House subcommittee last week.
Most BLM land was either rejected by homesteaders or returned to federal control when settlers couldn't make it because the territory was so harsh and dry. Laws passed since then (such as the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976) confirmed federal ownership, but left open the possibility of transferring those lands to the states.
Westerners say they're in the best position to use and take care of such lands.
''The Western farmer and rancher have a long heritage of land management,'' says New Mexico Lt. Gov. Walter Bradley (R). ''They are some of the best environmentalists.''
Others here grumble about the frequent turnover of land managers in the BLM and other federal agencies, and they argue that states could manage such lands far more efficiently and cheaply than Uncle Sam.
''Elected officials at the state and local level can be held directly accountable for the effect of their decisions,'' says Arizona Gov. Fife Symington (R). ''No such direct accountability exists for federal land managers.''
Critics worry that turning BLM lands over to the states would open them up to excessive economic exploitation while limiting public access.
''A few greedy Western states ... want to weaken the entire country by grabbing trillions in land and minerals that belong to the United States as a whole,'' charges Philip Hocker, president of the Mineral Policy Center, a group working for reform of federal mining law.
''With state ownership, the public-land livestock-user, other federal lease-holders, and large corporations see this legislation as one step closer to the day when they can acquire title to the public lands,'' warns George Lea, president of the Public Lands Foundation, an organization of about 1,000 retired BLM employees.
In her testimony before Hansen's subcommittee last week, Ms. Cohen was especially harsh in her criticism, and she said President Clinton likely would veto such a measure. ''The legislation is a giveaway, pure and simple,'' she said.
But others say that it's time Western states - like those in the rest of the country - should be able manage the territory within their borders.
''Historic federal dominance has kept much of the West in a condition of political and economic adolescence,'' observes Robert Nelson, professor of public affairs at the University of Maryland.
''There is no doubt that any major change in land tenure would disrupt long-standing political, financial, and legal networks and relationships,'' Dr. Nelson wrote in a publication of the Center for the New West in Denver, where he is a senior fellow. ''But in the long run, Western states would very likely be better off and the lands more efficiently managed and beneficially used.''
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