The Forest Service technician wheeled his pickup across a narrow bridge spanning the Cranberry River, in eastern West Virginia. Chester Carden surveyed the black cherry and elderberry blossoms with the proprietary interest of a cattle baron counting newborn calves. It was May 1982. Beech, yellow poplar and oak filled the hollows, and red spruce clung to the ridges.

Wildflowers covered open meadow, where butterflies--tiger swallowtails and monarchs-- floated on vagrant breezes.

"Everytime I come here," Carden said, as a scarlet tanager flung itself across the mottled blue sky, "I see something new."

He has been coming for more than 30 years. The Cranberry back country, 53,000 acres of mountain serenity--an area larger than the District of Columbia--lies several motorized hours from Key Bridge; it is a little-known recreational bonanza for Washingtonians and lesser creatures. Wild cranberry vines grow in a bog more suited to the Arctic than Appalachia. It harbors the black bear, the hermit thrush, some of the finest hardwood forests on earth and . . . enough political acrimony to last the century.

A bill to make the Cranberry an official wilderness area was at that moment before Congress. The great federal spotlight had come to rest here, in one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states, in a larger debate over the use of government- owned lands. The debate pitted administration and industry spokesmen against environmen talists. It involved billions of dollars in potential revenue nationwide, clean air, natural resources, jobs, the reputations of lobbyists, the careers and vanities of politicians, and nothing less than the future of America's vast, undeveloped real estate-- about 245 million acres, according to the National Forest Products Association.

The Cranberry bill would officially add 35,600 acres to the National Wilderness Preservation System, which already contains 23.5 million acres in the lower 48 states, all of it off- limits to the internal combustion engine and to the depredations--or the munificence, depending upon your point of view --of developers. If the bill passed, the Cranberry would become the second-largest wilderness area in the eastern United States, exceeded only by the Everglades in Florida.

The contest over the Cranberry is a complicated one. It involves the arguments for and against unmolested nature and offers an intriguing glimpse into the politicization of the forest primeval, or the closest thing we have to it. It also shows how easily a local issue becomes a national squabble. Secretary of the Interior James Watt, his boss, Ronald Reagan, and some powerful interests want an end to the creation of wilderness anywhere in America, so lumber can be harvested, oil and gas deposits plumbed, minerals mined and resorts built. Other equally powerful interests want areas like the Cranberry always to be eligible for the sanctuary of legislated wilderness.

The National Wilderness Preservation System--the official "bank" of wilderness lands--was created in 1964 by Congress. In 1970, the West Virginia legislature voted to add several areas in the Monongahela National Forest, including the Cranberry, to the system.

The latest stage of the Cranberry's political history began in 1975, when President Ford signed the Eastern Wilderness Act. The vast majority of wilderness is in the western United States, including Alaska, with relatively few people. The Eastern Wilderness Act created, among other things, the Cranberry Wilderness Study Area, a designation conferred by the Forest Service and indicating that the Cranberry was among the 56 million roadless acres of federal land nationwide and among the 12 million acres chosen for further study as wilderness areas.

The following year, the Forest Service suspended timber sales in the Cranberry and rated it "outstanding" in wilderness potential.

Slight and well-groomed, Carden wore a drab Forest Service uni form with the cap pulled down to his eyebrows. His truck was one of the few motorized vehicles allowed on the back-country roads, most of them old railway beds for the narrow-gauge steam engines that hauled out the timber in the early 1900s. The rails and ties have long since disappeared. An occasional apple tree grows at the foot of heavily wooded slopes, seeded by apple cores once tossed off the flatcars. "In the fall, the deer come down to eat the apples, and the bow hunters wait for them."

Carden stopped the truck to speak to two women holding up plastic bags full of trout. Fishing the Cranberry is a genial pastime, where the greatest threat is blisters or a sprained ankle. The solidly built blond woman tossed her plastic bag onto the picnic table and said, "I had a 23-inch rainbow, but something got it last night. Then I found a bear track!"

"I've never heard of a bear hurting anyone here," said Carden, who had seen hundreds. The females were still in dens, with their cubs. Carden measured off a foot of space with two hard hands. "The little gadgets are only about that big."

Born in nearby Richwood, Carden has the assurance of a natural woodsman. "Supposed to rain tomorrow. Won't be enough to even wet the leaves." (The next afternoon, on Tumbling Rock Trail, it would rain for exactly five minutes.) Each year he cleared an average of 50 miles of trails, packing in a manual saw and ax to attack the "blow-overs," big, shallow-rooted spruces that block the backpackers. He also put up the trail signs, wrapped in barbed wire to keep the bears from eating them.

Where were the big fish? these women wanted to know.

"In the water," said Carden, sober as stump.

He drove upstream, pointing out the three types of rhododendron that grow in the Cranberry--including mountain laurel--violets, daisies and the long, magnolia-like blossoms of the cucumber that provides seeds for turkey and ruffed grouse.

Carden was not too excited about the latest ruckus in Washington over the Cranberry. It has been a controversial area since the federal government bought the cut-over land from the railroads and lumber companies and closed the area to motorized traffic in 1936. People had been fishing, hunting, tramping and camping there for a couple of generations, and had grown accustomed to the notion of limited access.

Carden waved to the driver of the tank truck sent out twice a week by the Department of Natural Resources to stock the river. "The golden trout look like bananas laying in there." Apparently they weren't much harder to catch. "When they talked about including the river in the wilderness, some expert said they could stock"-- he pronounced it stalk--"by helicopter. Can you imagine? Why, the fish wouldn't survive the fall into that little bit of water."

Roadbeds in the wilderness area are overhung with maple, birch and ash. Hikers steadily ply the trails in summer, camping on the rackety tributaries where the water is cool and eminently potable, and native trout cling to an ancient ecosystem. But off the trail lies the arching wildness of rugged, untouched land, and the only civilized sound descends from airplanes as yet unbanished from the Cranberry's airspace.

At night, deer snort in the laurel groves, barred owls cajol one another and bobcats shriek in pursuit of smaller, less fortunate beasts. Higher up, along the ridges, evergreens completely shut out the morning sunlight, confounding all sense of direction. An undulating, unbroken carpet of moss covers the roots, rocks and ground. There are no flowers, no nut-bearing trees and consequently no game, except an occasional red squirrel chirring in a hemlock.

At the end of the road lies thng the 56 million roadless e Cranberry Glades Botanical Area, a natural national landmark since 1975. Here hard rock undersurface prevented the Cranberry River from digging the customary geological trench, creating instead a beautiful, exotic 750-acre expanse where sphagnum moss, buck bean and cottongrass grow in a sea of muck. Every year, 25,000 people come to look at it. The river emerges murky as Louisiana bayou, but at an elevation of 3,400 feet; its high, natural acidity washes the rocks clean and chases the trout downstream.

Carden rolled up onto the highway and took the Highlands Scenic Highway (State Rte. 150) that follows the eastern boundary of the wilderness north. "I love it," he said, of all that unmanaged timber.

"If Don Young gets red in the face, you know there's going to be trouble."

Young is the Republican congressman from Alaska. The speaker was a lobbyist for the Wilderness Society, wearing Frye boots and a tie, and sitting in the Longworth House Office Building's ornate hearing room reserved for the Public Lands and National Parks Subcommittee. On the walls, idealized American Indians disported themselves in paintings of idealized wilderness.

Young gnawed on his pipestem during the markup of the Cranberry bill, H.R. 5161. Then he gripped his microphone, face red, as predicted, and denounced the Cranberry's supporters as "extreme groups wishing to lock up resources in this great nation of ours. If anyone thinks this is a single area issue for West Virginia, they're wrong.

. . . It affects all the people of the United States."

Young wanted a delay so that he could attach to the bill "release" language that would prevent any more government land from ever being considered for wilderness.

Such a position is known as "hard" release--meaning no more wilder ness at all--and the Cranberry was seen as the vehicle for hard release.

"We have enough wilderness already," Young said. But his request for a delay was denied by the subcommittee chairman, Rep. John Seiberling (D-Ohio), and the bill moved on to the full Interior Com mittee.

Young told Seiberling after the hearing that he would drop opposition to the bill "if you give me the release language. Then the Cranberry will become a beautiful, pristine wilderness." He turned to a reporter. "The environmentalists are going too far. You watch, if the country goes belly-up, they'll be to blame!"

The real debate concerned the 36 million roadless acres in America not recommended in 1979 by the Forest Service for wilderness. Environmental groups try to keep developers out of this land in the hope that it will eventually fall under the wilderness mantle. It is not wilderness now, but it has wilderness potential. Developers and politicians from Reagan to Don Young want these multiple-use areas immediately to begin generating federal dollars and local jobs-- as resorts, or as mining, drilling or timbering locales--and to hell with the forest primeval.

The Reagan administration has made it clear that it wants "wilderness" --land that cannot be tampered with in any way--eliminated as a possible use of federal land that is not already in the wilderness system. Industries trying to develop those 36 million acres say environmental groups invariably haul them into court.

"As soon as we go into one of these areas," said a member of the National Forest Products Association, "the local environmentalists file a dilatory suit . . . Then the Forest Service backs off, and they obtain de facto wilderness. There's no compromise. It's like two sumo wrestlers who won't say, 'Can we untangle in a reasonable way?' Any give is interpreted as weakness."

"They want to develop everything," said a wilderness advocate with considerable power on Capitol Hill, "and they don't want to be curtailed."

Sandwiched between these two sweaty sumo bellies is the Cranberry.

Wilderness status for the Cranberry was originally championed by a local conservation group, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. The national environmenadless tal lobby got hold of the issue, offering its legislative expertise on the Hill, and its mailing lists. Like Young, they saw the Cranberry as a vehicle too, but for "soft" release language--an assurance that federal lands would continue to be considered for wilderness designation. The local environmentalists could not very well refuse such potent partners, even though a local issue was subordinated to the national wilderness cause.

A member of the West Virginia Conservancy says, "There's a real tack-the- coonskin-on-the-wall mentality," among leaders of the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation. "If you're with them, you're on the side of the angels. If you're against them, you're a son-of- a-bitch. We fought for this issue for years, but if the bill passes, they'll take the credit."

At the Interior Committee hearing-- the next contest after the subcommittee hearing where Young's face became so radiant--disagreements among local and national environmentalists were subordinated to getting the Cranberry bill on to the floor of the House. Similarly, it was the only thing capable of uniting the fractious and economically depressed forest industry.

For years, the Conservancy had

been lobbying throughout the

state for the creation of wilder ness. When the owner of 18 mil lion tons of coking coal beneath the Cranberry's federally owned surface --the Chessie System railroad, now part of CSX Corporation--decided to mine the coal, the Conservancy, the West Virginia division of the nationwide conservationist Izaak Walton League, and the Wilderness Society filed suit to prevent it. Protests were organized, and the West Virginia legislature declared a moratorium on mining in the Cranberry Study Area, which meant that it would be treated as wilderness until the various interests were sorted out. Wilderness was favored by most conservation groups in the state, the Forest Service, Gov. Jay Rockefeller and some newspapers. But it also had its opponents--the timber and coal interests, and those local organizations like the Chambers of Commerce that favored the jobs and revenue generated by development.

Finding politicians who would make friendly noises about protecting the Cranberry was not nearly as difficult as finding those who would try to make it law. The Conservancy and other proponents persuaded former West Virginia representative Harley O. Staggers to introduce the legislation in the House, but it died in the 96th Congress.

Rep. Cleve Benedict, a Republican, was elected to West Virginia's Second District after Staggers retired in 1982. His bailiwick contains most of the Cranberry, which represents only 11 percent of the Forest Service land in Pocahontas County. Pressured by conservationists during his campaign to pledge himself to wilderness for the Cranberry, Benedict was then pressured to introduced H.R. 5161, which was unpopular with his own party.

Politics complicated the issue even further. With the election of Reagan, the idea of no more wilderness areas-- the so-called hard release position -- gained political currency. The administration, and industry spokesmen, pushed the politicians for hard release. Should a few determined souls, they asked, keep America's Winnebagos out of the woods, deprive others of jobs and revenue? Should a few industries, countered the environmentalists, profit at the expense of America's once, present and future psychic need?

The hard/soft issue attached itself to poor little H.R. 5161. In the days following the subcommittee markup in May, both the environmentalists and forest industry lobbyists swung into action. The National Forest Products Association lobbyist canvassed members of the full committee to see if there were sufficient votes for hard release language. The Conservancy had local representatives cable Young with expressions of support for the Cranberry wilderness. The Conservancy asked Gov. Rockefeller to wire Seiberling, reaffirming his support, which he did. Benedict did the same.

The morning of the hearing, under the eyes of all those painted Indians, a representative of the Sierra Club, Tim Mahoney, leaned over the back of a chair in the Longworth Building and told the president of the Conservancy, Stark Biddle, "We've got release under control. We have all the Democrats on the committee, and Young doesn't have all the Republicans."

"Release has become a symbolic national issue," said Biddle. "It's really a vote on Reaganomics."

Mahoney was right: Young did not have the votes. Instead, Young planned to introduce hard release language in the House--the next turn of the political screw.

"You may have won this battle," Young told Seiberling, "but you won't win the war."

The broader issue of wilderness preservation reaches to the very edge of the Cranberry. "I have flat feet," says the editor of the Pocahontas Times, Bill McNeel, of Marlinton (pop. 1,200), "so the area isn't much use to me. I'm doing it for my descendants . . . Wilderness is a necessity for modern man, to remind him that he's part of nature, and not above it."

McNeel's weekly has been in the family for three generations, produced in a one-story clapboard building crowded with stuffed birds, nail kegs full of arrowheads and hand- set printing equipment. McNeel brings an open-collared noblesse oblige to the argument, claiming jobs generated by timbering and mining in the Cranberry would go mostly to outsiders. "We've heard the development argument before. 'We're all going to be wealthy, et cetera.' Well, we got the railroad and the lumber companies at the turn of the century. After 25 years, the companies left, and we had nothing but burnt and cut-over land."

Tax revenues are generated by the coal, even when it goes unmined. CSX pays the county about $20,000 a year in mineral taxes, but that would be lost if the Cranberry were made wilderness. So McNeel and some other prominent Pocahontans got together last year and decided the federal goverment should give the county $2 million in compensation if the Cranberry is made a wilderness. They say it's an arbitrary figure. If the coal were mined, it would bring in 75 cents a ton in severance tax. That's $14 million over 20 years, which would pay for a lot of books and ambulance calls in a county where such things are luxuries.

"Basically, we're talking money," says Walt Helmick, president of the County Commission and a self-described small businessman who favors development. Helmick owns a welding supply shop on the outskirts of Marlinton. "This thing has been a political football for years. It's easy to take the other side--wilderness is popular . . . But we have to generate revenue."

Despite its coal holdings, CSX found itself in the curious position of finally favoring wilderness for the Cranberry -- and lobbying for it. There is something in it for CSX even if the Cranberry becomes a wilderness area. Under the provisions of the Cranberry bill, CSX would receive federal coal deposits somewhere else in exchange for the coal in the Cranberry. But CSX could get paid instead. Skeptics said the possibility of getting federal cash, not a coal exchange, gave the railroad an unprecedented case of environmental religion.

"It's a good outcome for all the parties involved," says John Snow, CSX vice president for public affairs.

"Chessie originally wanted to mine," insists Helmick. "Then they realized they could get the big buck without getting their hands dirty, so they flopped. But we stuck straight on."

The Chamber of Commerce in nearby Richwood also favors development. Three times the size of Marlinton, Richwood clings to the hillsides of Nicholas County with the hungry determination of the traditionally underemployed.

"The economy and the environment are closely tied together," said Lawrence Dietz. "People must have jobs, or the whole environment deteriorates."

Dietz, a member of the Izaak Walton League and a self- taught naturalist, is no Chamber of Commerce Pollyanna. He gets a turkey every season he goes after one; he is near- eloquent on the politics of shade. "You have to let in the light, or the conifers will take over. . . . We need something just short of wilderness, so plants and animals can propagate."

Unlike Dietz, most people living on the rim of the Cranberry don't seem to care much what happens to it. They like the idea of money and jobs, but distrust both the federal goverment and big corporations. "Frankly, I don't give a ----," says the owner of the Richwood sporting goods store. "I'm not really involved with the Cranberry," says the mayor of Marlinton, Doug Dunbrack, while helping the paving crew dump hot tar into some of the town's potholes. "Cleve Benedict asked me the same thing, and I couldn't even give him an opinion."

In the weeks before the Cranberry bill came up on the House floor last month, a coalition of the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation sent letters to all but 50 House members urging them not to block passage. Seiberling's staff sent out "Dear Colleague" letters to Democratic House members; Benedict did the same with the Republicans, and personally told Young he wanted the bill to pass.

Some people felt that Benedict also wanted to demonstrate legislative ability and an attempt to bring warring sides of the party together, for Benedict had ambitions beyond the House of Representatives.

Interior Secretary Watt joined Benedict for a fund-raising tour of West Virginia for Republicans, and let the congressman know that the administration would do nothing to endanger his bill. It was placed on the suspension calendar, which meant it could pass by voice vote if no objections were raised. If a congressman asked for a vote, then Benedict would have to muster two-thirds of the House, a very chancy proposition.

Rep. Young was the unreckonable. "He's chimerical," said a member of Benedict's staff. "The trick is to keep Young from opening his mouth," said a Conservancy member.

That didn't prove necessary. The Monday morning when the bill came up in the House, Young was in . . . Cleveland-- "a longstanding speaking engagement." Both Seiberling and Benedict made brief statements, and H.R. 5161 passed to a chorus of "yeas" after only seven minutes.

"The congressman decided to stop beating a dead horse," said one of Young's aides, meaning that Young knew he didn't have enough votes in the Democrat-controlled House to insist on the hard release language. "There are other places to spill blood."

The process began all over again, this time in the world's greatest deliberative body. The spilled blood would first fall on the floor of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, chaired by James McClure (R-Idaho), where several wilderness bills from other states were already bottled up. McClure wanted to pass a national hard release bill before even considering the others. As one of McClure's aides put it, "There's less than enthusiastic support here for the Cranberry bill."

It didn't have a prayer without strong support from Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.). Byrd asked for hearings on the bill in the Senate. "The senator supports the general concept of wilderness for the Cranberry," said Byrd's press aide, Mike Willard, as cautious as an amorous porcupine. "He wants to make sure the views of West Virginians are heard."

But . . . guess what? Benedict is running for Byrd's Senate seat in the November election, not the surest way to win Byrd's support of the Cranberry bill. Hanging in the reception room of Byrd's Senate office is a framed cartoon from the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette showing Benedict being splattered with mud by a contributor, and the caption, "Just because I made money out of soap"--a reference to Benedict's days as a door-to-door toiletries salesman--"doesn't mean I gotta stay clean."

That is not an indication of senatorial fondness. Benedict's challenge was said to have offended Byrd, a member of the Senate since 1958 and in 1976 the only West Virginian in recent history to run for the Senate unopposed. If the bill passed, it would reflect favorably upon Benedict, Byrd's opponent.

Benedict's chances of being elected are slim at best, but taking on the minority leader gave Benedict status, and pleased both the administration and his fellow Republicans. Byrd's aides bristle when asked if Benedict's challenge will have any bearing on the senator's support for the Cranberry bill. "Of course not," said Willard.

A Cranberry bill may or may not reach the floor of the Senate this summer. It may or may not contain language preventing additional federal lands from ever being considered for wilderness. And it may or not pass. After nearly a half-century of battles over what it should become, the Cranberry remains subject not so much to the natural forces that created it, but to the needs, whims and ambitions of human beings.