If you want to gather firewood around these parts, you'd better talk to Gene Day first.

The same if you want to shoot a deer, graze a cow, hunt arrowheads, dig gravel, raft a river, drill an oil well, dam a creek, bulldoze a road, run a powerline or just go fishing: Chance are you'll need a permit from Gene Day.

S. Gene Day never has been elected to public office, but he is the most powerful man in southeastern Utah. As district manager for the Bureau of Land Management, an agency of the federal Interior Department, Day controls 6.2 million acres -- 55 percent of the land in four counties.

Since he arrived in Moab four years ago, the Idaho native has learned how unpopular a landlord can be. He has faced lawsuits, bomb threats, demonstrations an social ostracism. A county commissioner calls him a "colonial lord." A U.S. senator says he's a "federal carpetbagger." The bumper stickers read: "BLM -- Better Leave Moab."

Such is the fate of a GS-14 on the front lines of the Sagebrush Rebellion. The federal government owns 66 percent of Utah -- and at least a third of the land in 10 other western states. Many westerners would like to control that territory themselves and are passing state laws and preparing court suits to try to do so.

The rhetoric of this western rebellion has become familiar. Its cause is less so. In the last decade, Congress has quietly passed dozens of new laws with different inspirations but a similar effect: to tighten federal control over federal lands, particularly in the West. Following the basic 1969 National Environmental Policy Act came laws governing strip mining, coal leasing, timber harvestings, endangered species, livestock grazing, air pollution and wilderness, to name only a few. Environmental groups field lawsuits requiring ever more regulations.

The result has been a new leash on the freewheeling lifestyle of the West.

One new law, little publicized at its passage in October 1976, is having a sweeping impact on the 417 million acres administered by BLM. With the forgettable title of Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), this law may be the match that finally lit the Sagebrush Rebellion.

It officially repealed the 1862 Homestead Act, under which the federal government had deeded away millions of acres of the public domain. Under FLPMA, BLM -- long derided as the Burear of Livestock and Management for its domination by local interests -- would be transformed from a laissez-faire custodian to an aggressive manager.

FLPMA called for comprehensive land-used planning; new rules to prevent exhaustion of timbe, forage and other natural resources, and protection of wildlife and scenic and cultural values. One controversial section ordered an inventory of all roadless areas for possible wilderness designation.

The effects of these new federal laws are graphically obvious in Moab. This dusty desert town of 10,000 people, originally settled by Mormon cattlemen, lies surrounded by the spectacular scenery of red rocks and purple mountains. Beneath the landscape is a wealth of uranium, potash, coal and other minerals.

Gene Day is the man who mediates the fiercely conflicting interests of tourists, environmentalists, miners and ranchers.

He also must juggle 47 different laws, some dozen executive orders and more then 800 pages of regulations. His staff of 160 -- more than double what it was five years ago -- includes range managers, botanists, geologists, wilderness specialists, environmental coordinators, archeologists, wildlife biologists, hydrologists, fisheries experts, recreation specialists and cartographers.

Such growth has led Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to complain, "BLM is oppressive. Where there used to be one BLM man per county, now there are 60 of them, stumbling over each other, acting like little gods. They're being paid for nothing but to cause trouble. Utah is one of the most potentially rich states, but we are so dominated by BLM, it's impossible for us to run our own-lives."

A day with Gene Day, however, is hardly like watching a monarch hold court. It is more akin to a boxing match in which both contestants and the crowd have turned furinously on the referee. The 45-year-old district managers, his nerves somewhat jangled, tries to keep his sense of humor.

"People say my first initial stands for Slipshod," he jokes. "Oh, well, at least you're somebody, It's better than being ignored."

The first stop in a tour of Moab district is Negro Bill Canyon, a picturesque red-walled gorge where a year-round stream, a precious commodity out here, nourishes graceful juniper trees. It is the scene of one of the nastiest fights in the West.

The canyon, a favorite of picnickers and backpapackers, was under protection as a potential wilderness area when two local miners bulldozed a road through it to work a claim. BLM barricaded the road. The Grant County Commission reopened it, threatening to arrest BLM officials. BLM closed it again.

The commission reopened it in what had become, by this summer, a comedy of musical bulldozers.

At one point, drivers of 50 jeeps staged a picnic at the end of road, portesting its consideration for wilderness.

Ironically, geologists say Negro Bill probably has no minerals. But under the 1872 mining act, $100 of "assessment work" a year must be done on each claim, or it will expire. The two miners, who had not yet mined their claims, were fulfilling federally imposed obligations by bulldozing the road -- leading BLM critics to accuse the government of hypocrisy.

The tangled argument is now in court, with the state of Utah defending the county. "It's a tempest in a teapot," say Days, claiming he offered to waive the assessment requirements. "It's no a mining issue. It's a fight over who controls roads."

The wilderness issue has exacerbated what a Salt Lake City newspaper calls "a permanent state of emotional insurrection against the federal government in southern Utah." Miners come to public hearings with guns strapped on their belts. A county commissioner told a BLM meeting, "I'm getting to the point where I'll blow up bridges, ruins and vehicles. We're going to start a revolution." An environmentalist was nearly shoved off a canyon cliff by two wilderness opponents during a BLM-guided tour.

So far, BLM has placed 5.5 million acres in Utah -- more than a quarter of its land here -- in an "intensive inventory" to determine if Congress should designate it as wilderness. Such a designation would mean no road-building, no expansion of motorized recreation and a phaseout of mining.

Ron Steele, a Moab electrician, is an active member of the Western Association of Land Users, a local group formed to fight BLM.

"Gene Day is a hard-core environmentalist," Steele says. "He's wiping us out. There isn't one thing that any of us here uses that doesn't come from the land. We play on it, hunt deer, fish, get lumber. They're denying us the right of our lifestyle."

Wilderness proposals can tie up the land for five to 10 years. Says Steele, "The OPEC nations have got this country on its knees and meanwhile, in the West, we're sitting on uranium, gas and oil -- the potential to do what's got to be done to avoid blackmail."

Day is exasperated by the sagebrush rebels. "Most of it is selfish vested interest," he says. "What's their platform, anyway? If the state took over th lands, how would they manage any differentl? Federal ownership isn't inhibiting anything."

"There's fantastic freedom on public lands," Day contends. "People can drive out of Moab and camp anywhere they want. But the days when you hung your outhouse over the Colorado River are over. When you have more people, you have to have more controls. It's not BLM that's restricting -- it's the fact that this area is growing 11 percent a year. Like Pogo says: We have met the enemy and he is us."

On a drive through the District, Day acknowledges that grazing studies now under way will mean "significant" retrenchments for some of the 326 rangers whose cattle roam his vast arid domain. Already, in parts of Utah, grazing has been cut back 35 to 75 percent.

Such reductions are becoming necessary throughout the West, where, according to BLM, 80 percent of rangelands are in fair, poor or bad condition. Soil erosion is severe and productivity is waning. "In the past," Day said, "the idea was to help the rancher get enough forage to make red meat. District managers who tried to stop overgrazing ended up being transferred. But under FLPMA, we've had to manage the land."

BLM also has been prodded by the Natural Resource Defense Council, an environmental group whose lawsuit forced the agency to write environmental impact statements for each of 212 grazing districts.

Both BLM and cattlemen complain about red tape. To cut back one rancher's grazing, a detailed forage survey of thousands of acres must be made and a new land use plan drawn up. A rancher has several appeals and a single dispute can take as long as 19 years to resolve, as one Montana case did.

"Gene Day is a public relations man," complains Ken Summers, an area rancher. "He doesn't know anything about cattle. Our basic problem is bureaucrats. BLM sends these college kids out to tell use what to do any they've never seen a cow before."

Summers, who leases 2,000 acres of public land for his 300 cattle, angrily waved a copy of the Federal Register during an interview. "In the last five years, regulations have mushroomed," he said. He complains about decisions based on whether a certain plant, the four-winged saltbrush or bunchgrass, for example, is abundant on a certain range.

"They think that's all that counts, but the range can be in good condition when 'key species' aren't," he said.

Last winter, Summers said, BLM tried to make him move his cattle off the range -- his permit had expired -- when there were two feet of snow on the ground. "I told them to go to hell," he said. "It's become harassment, not management."

Day counters such criticism with examples of cooperation: Energy Fuels Nuclear, wanting to build a large uranium mill in an archeologically rich area, agreed to excavate every site first at a cost of some $200,000. On the other hand, when the state of Utah raised archeological objections to a dam that area residents wanted to build, Day intervened to waive any excavation requirements.

Day's pet project is to create an official "scenic way" along a 45-mile stretch of the Colorado River. The designation would prevent a widening of the highway and attract federal funds for recreational facilities. "It has taken a selling job" to local residents, Day says, but once he agreed to allow local industry trucks to use the road, most opposition subsided.

While small miners deeply resent new regulations, such as bonding and reclamation rules, large companies have adapted. Robert Norman, manager of Buttes Gas and Oil, has just gotten BLM permits to mine 80 square miles of land for potash only seven miles from Arches National Park.

It took him a year and $2.5 million worth of studies on groundwater, flora and fauna, air quality and archeology, but he didn't mind. "We've had 100 percent cooperation from BLM," he said. "If BLM and industry sit down together, we can get the job done.

"Mining companies are notorious for abuse.They'd cut down trees and not worry about soil erosion. They'd allow toxic materials to pollute the water. But the new regulations and [FLPMA] say you can get the minerals without tearing up the country."

Hundereds of hours of staff work are required to process a single large application such as Buttes' and 'BLM argues it is still grossly understaffed."The tendency out West is to keep BLM barefoot and pregnant," says one Washington BLM man. The U.S. Forest Service has 22,000 people to manage 180 million acres, while BLM has 6,000 for its 417 million-acre spread, he notes.

"The sagebrush Rebellion's true intent is not to give the lands back to the states," says Deborah Sease of the Wilderness Society. "It is to emasculate BLM and stop the management of these lands."