Nobody seems to be in a panic about tropical forests except serious ecologists, but they are having fits and lighting fires wherever they can to make the general public uneasy and active.

Yesterday, as a bright spot in the generally deplorable situation, President Reagan honored Costa Rica through the presentation of the J. Paul Getty Award for conservation excellence to the first and to the present directors of the Costa Rican national park service, Mario Andres Boza and Alvaro Ugalde.

Speaking in the White House Rose Garden, the president complimented both the two men and their small nation, noting the vast assortment of mammals, plants, bugs and other biological treasures there, including 700 kinds of butterflies. He said the Costa Rican conservation work and, as well, Costa Rican democracy was something the whole world might emulate, and said Costa Rica is an example of "what democracy is all about."

Russell Train, president of the World Wildlife Fund that sponsors the awarding of the prize, which this year splits $50,000 between the two directors, presided at the garden ceremonies before the president arrived, and the president himself, who has not always seemed the hero to conservation groups, was decorated with a silver and black panda pin for his lapel, symbol of World Wildlife.

Perhaps a million dollars of American money has gone into the Costa Rican project--a lot for the conservation groups who gave it, but mere peanuts compared with the Costa Rican efforts which have resulted in a million acres fully preserved already.

It has been possible through years (Boza was inspired by a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1968 and it took off from there) by engaging politicians, commercial and industrial interests, Boy Scouts and virtually everybody else in the Central American republic. Books were published, newspaper articles were written, and talks were made all over the country.

Those parks now contain 8 percent of the country's land (parks in the United States amounted to about 1.7 percent of the land before the admission of Alaska) and what is especially important, ecologists think, is the variety included in those parks, from volcanoes to sea turtle breeding grounds.

Last year the prestigious award went to Brazil, a vastly larger nation with grave problems of population pressure, inflation and so on, a nation said to be making strong efforts to minimize the damage of people, who need land, to the quite delicate tropical forests. Despite the lushness of tropical rain forests, which impressed Darwin more than anything else he ever beheld, the tropical richness of life is surprisingly precarious. Cleared land commonly becomes worthless for farming in a mere three years, yet the restoration of the original teeming life seems, thus far, an impossible challenge.

Throughout the tropics the aim of conservationists is to preserve what can be preserved, to identify and catalogue as much of the life as possible (for a vast percentage of plant and animal life faces extinction within a matter of decades, even before it has been named and studied) and to encourage the least damage possible as tropical nations develop their great resources.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the last two Getty awards have gone to tropical American nations, not only in recognition of accomplishment but as encouragement to them and others.

Anyone reading learned papers on tropical ecology is likely to be cast into such depression as to question whether anything substantial can be done, and it is partly to change a feeling of gloom for a goad to action that the award exists.

Tom Lovejoy, secretary to the jury that made the award, was among the young chipper conservationists packed together in a tent at the Decatur House garden last night, where a reception honored the winners, and however anxious he might be at the fate of the tropics and hence of the world, Lovejoy seemed endlessly cheerful. He called Costa Rica the "little nation that could," and spoke glowingly of Costa Rican contributions to the knowlege of tropical biologists in the United States, a good half of whom have had training in that small country.

At the White House the president came, made his points and departed within five minutes, and even at the Decatur House reception the speeches were brief and guests standing on the brick pavement were sustained by ginger ale, tidbits and a generally rosy ambience.