THE KINGDOM IN THE COUNTRY By James Conaway Houghton Mifflin. 293 pp. $17.95

JAMES CONAWAY believes that the ownership of much of the West by the federal government helps preserve Western ideals. He first got entangled in the bureaucratic net that governs much of the land by covering the Interior Department and its controversial secretary, James Watt, as a reporter for The Washington Post. The big issue at the time was Watt's notion to sell gigantic swaths of public land off to private owners. Wisely, Conaway decided he would rather explore the huge expanse of territory under federal domain west of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers than listen to argument about it in big Washington buildings.

So, he packed supplies in a van and headed out toward the regions under the jurisdiction of the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management and the Agriculture Department's Forest Service. That meant "millions of prime acres," the "kingdom" referred to the title. It includes most of Nevada and much of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Utah, Arizona, California and New Mexico.

Unlike some modern chroniclers of the West, such as Edward Abbey or Joseph Wood Krutch, Conaway found himself more intrigued by the people using the lands than by the landscape itself. The result is felicitous: a character-filled stew of a book as flavorful and rich as New Mexico green chili.

One federal employe told Conaway he divides visitors to his territory into "good guys, turkeys, dirt bags, fifty-one fifties and dangerous critters." (Fifty-one fifty is the California penal code designation for persons of unsound mind.) Although Conaway remains relatively in the background, he gives the impression that this is not a bad way to categorize many of his subjects. The best part of this book is his vivid descriptions of encounters with characters who could populate a dozen Louis L'Amour novels.

They include northern California Vietnam/hippie/freak/burnout cases turned marijuana farmers, pot (as in Indian pottery) hunters and their law enforcement anthropologist adversaries, Arizona gold mine entrepreneurs, grizzly bear stalkers, cowboys who round up wild horses by helicopter and a Basque sheep herder who operates his own Cote Basque over an Idaho campfire. A truly intrepid reporter, Conaway backs away from nothing (even though he is frightened silly camping among the griz), nor does he let tough questions slide. Chatting with a deputy in Colorado City, Ariz., among the last bastions of apostate Mormon polygamy, he asks this monogamous husband and father of four if he wanted another wife. "You betcha!" replies the husband.

"What do you do to get one?"

"We don't believe in dating. Dancing is about as far as we get in that direction. The elders will decide when I'm ready . . . " the fellow explains. Remember now, we are talking about Arizona, in the US of A, in the mid 1980s.

The Kingdom in the Country reaches its dirtbag climax when Conaway spends a weekend with ATC (all terrain motorcycle) riders. Their idea of fun is to tear up and down the Imperial Sand Dunes of the Southern California desert, often maiming themselves in the process. The federal deputy who patrols this nightmarish party spot is a bird watcher when he is not discovering bloated bodies of Mexican aliens under joshua trees or attending to children with skulls crushed under their motorized "trikes." Perhaps the Earth First! environmentalists should pay as much attention to these land abusers as they do to corporate villains.

NOT ALL OF Conaway's observations are quite so mind-boggling. Many Westerners pay fees to use public land for grazing, retirement motor home living or benign recreation. Their stories, however important, tend to be overshadowed by the surreal bikers and shooters.

Nonetheless, using public lands as its frame, The Kingdom in the Country paints a multi-hued super-realist picture of the modern West. It represents the best kind of reportage -- fresh, readable, resonant with the author's fascination for his subject.

Aside from their entertainment value, the good guys, dirtbags, turkeys and others illustrate Conaway's themes. One is that "the homogenization of America has been postponed by the existence of public lands, where people can pursue lives truly different from those elsewhere, or at least pretend to."

Nevertheless, somewhat buried within Conaway's mountain of anecdotes lies a warning. The purpose of the Forest Service and BLM -- bureaucracy created to foster this ongoing all-American character -- is changing from preservation of open country to managing it in order to serve economic development such as road building, corporate farming, large scale logging. James Watt is gone, but his ideas live on.

Grace Lichtenstein was formerly Rocky Mountains bureau chief for The New York Times.