THE OLD WEST is about to be sacrificed on the altars of national defense or energy independence -- or both. We can start saying our last goodbyes to that repository of vaules, ideas, memories, vistas and ways of life which date back to the frontier and have managed to escape much of the turmoil of the 20th century.

The region is facing such a stark and profound attack on its ways and means that even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has become alarmed. The Mormons, whose politics and policies have brought them the image of "super Americans," this month stunned the East Coast establishment by coming out against the MX super-missile system that is slated to be built in the 500 empty miles of the Great Basin between Salt Lake City and Reno.

If the MX is ever built, it would tie up virtually all existing concrete production facilities west of the Mississippi. It would mean the building of cities to house construction workers and troops in mountains and deserts so empty that right now, the foremost signs of life on the tufts of slow jackrabbits left on narrow two-lane blacktops. It would mean sucking up untold millions of gallons of water in a land already so dry that there is serious talk of piping water in from the faraway Missouri for other purposes. And it would mean scarring the land in a place already so fragile that, to the northeast, in Wyoming and Idaho, you can still see the wagon ruts of the oregon Trail.

But even if the first MX track is never laid, the future is coming to get the Old West. From the Dakotas to California's Sierra Nevada, from the Arizona lands of the Navajos to the North Slope lands of the Innuit, this is the last colony -- and a resource colony at that -- of the rest of North America. This is the region that is being catapulted from the 19th century into the 21st with only the briefest pause in the 20th for the chair-swinging bar fights of oil patch roughnecks in the Whirl Inn Disco in Evanston, Wyo.

There's a region like this Saudi Arabia. It's vast, empty and resource-rich. It's called the Urb 'al Kahli: the Empty Quarter. And the future of the North American Empty Quarter is made more complicated by the presence of the majority of the continent's spirit-lifing physical endowment. It has the only major stretches of wilderness left, and the only sizable quantities of Quality One air -- air through which you can see 100 miles. This is the land that the development-minded cynics call "the national sacrifice area."

For if the Old West is not chewed up for the MX tracks, it seems inevitable that it will be spit out to develop the conventional oil, coal, oil shale, tar sands, heavy oil, uranium, alumina, beryllium, molybdenum, selenium, silver and gold that planners are convinced are needed to light the lights and keep the factories humming from Los Angeles to Boston in the coming decades.

Many Westerns do not share this analysis. And other Westerns who do don't care, saying that the shiny, new, industrialized West will be better than the present one. Be that as it may, the Old West as a way of life is doomed.

Last summer Exxon, the world's largest corporation, issued a few of its private calculations about American energy futures. In the east, the news was carried with the truss ads. Perhaps its enormity was too much to absorb.

The company stressed that its study was not Exxon's plan for North America resource development. It was merely Exxon's view of the inevitable.

There are, right now, Exxon said, enough known recoverable reserves of coal and oil shale in the Old West to provide synthetic fuels equivalent to 1 trillion barrels of oil.

"That's three times as much energy as the U.S. Geological Survey estimates can be provided by the country's remaining proved and undiscovered reserves of oil and gas," Exxon concluded. "And it's enough to sustain a synthetic fuels industry producing 15 million barrels of oil a day for 175 years." That's also two-thirds more oil a day than Saudi Arabia can produce right now.

Exxon allowed that producing that much oil within our borders "will be complicated by the fact that much of the industry will have to be concentrated in arid, sparsely populated parts of the West." Exxon also figured that the project would cost $800 billion in 1980 dollars, and that it would involve piping water hundreds or thousands of miles, maybe even from the Yukon.

By the year 2010, according to the company, the effort would employ 480,000 people in mining, 390,000 in processing plants, 250,000 in construction during peak years, and 8,400 in design engineering.

Of course, providing supermarkets and movie houses for this kind of industry would triple or quintuple the number of jobs. Multiply that by the number of families supported by those jobs, and you're talking about at least 8 million people.

That's 25 times the current population of Wyoming.

And, according to Exxon, its inevitable that they are all going to live in sprawling, gleaming megalopolises that this nation is going to build -- has started to build -- at spots on the map that are right now only crossroads with obscure names like Rifle, Craig, Lynndyl, Crested Butte and Evanston.

If our tomorrows are based on the production of energy, Exxon matter-of-factly opined, then Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Alberta, Alaska, and parts of surrounding states and provinces are on the potter's wheel of history.

In fact, any time a North American planner comes up with some big idea for development, whether for weapons systems or energy production, his eye automatically turns to the Old West. After all, planners can't get Interstate 95 completed through New Jersey. They certainly wouldn't try to put an MX in Boston.

In terms of changing lives, "I guess the the toughest thing is the rancher," says Alan Graban, the affable president of the First Wyoming Bank in the Old West's newest energy boom town, Evanston, Wyo. Evanston, smack on top of the Overthrust Belt, which is some of the most productive oil-bearing geology in North America, is scheduled to go in the next five years from not-even-on-the-charts to the fourth largest city in Wyoming.

"The rancher comes in to buy groceries. Got a nice car, a zillion acres, the mineral rights under it. Along comes Milt [Amoco drilling foreman Milt Hoesel] and a bunch of his guys and says, gee whiz, we'll give you $100 an acre if you let us drill, and it takes him about a month to think about it because, goddamn, this is ranching country and you're not going to come in and mess it up.

"But they come in and drill a few wells, maybe three miles out of town, on each side of the house, and one flows 7 millions cubic feet of gas a day, and the other flows 500 barrels, and he's a millionaire overnight.

"And then he comes with momma and he sits down with his banker and hands you a check for $158,000 for the first month's royalties. And he hasn't the foggiest notion what to do.

"We're set up where we take them down to Arthur Andersen [one of the country's "big eight" accounting firms], who has an expert in oil depletion and oil accounting; we take them bodily down there and they are most happy and this guy is a tremendous person and he introduces them to the tax ramifications and what have you and turns them over from that point to the First Security Band and Trust so that they can set up living trusts and that sort of thing and maybe protect. . . . Well, hell, they've got more money now than they'll ever need, but then he comes in with the next month's check and he sits down and smiles and says, "This is the first time in my life that I can afford to be a rancher."

"The nice thing is that the people who are getting the royalties are the old-timers who struggled and lived here all their lives. But the thing that scares me is that they don't have the knowledge. You see, they got the ranch from their father, and their father from their grandfather, and now the father gives it to the son.

"The only difference is that there's a thousand acrees, and when they transferred it from grandpa to their father at a buck an acre, it was nothing.

"There's no way your're going to tell Internal Revenue that with two producing oil wells on both sides of your house that that's worth $1 an acre. Or there's a housing development on three sides, or a mobile-home court. With the land selling for $5,000 an acre.

"All of a sudden,t he guy's land is worth $5 million. And the guy dies and Uncle Sam says, okay, in the next six months now, we need a check for three-quarters of a million, and you tell them that they don't believe you.

"It's Evanstonitis, somebody called it. It's a feeling that . . . why has all this happened?''

No one knows exactly how fast "Evanstonitis" will infect the Old West, because no one knows exactly how much in the way of energy resources the Empty Quarter contains.

Geologists had just about decided there were no more major conventional oil fields left onshore in this continent, when advanced technology cracked the Overthrust Belt. The rest is the history of Evanston and other towns like it along the Rockies from British Columbia to Guatemala.

Trapped in the Athabasca tar sands of Alberta alone, there is more oil than in the entire Persian Gulf. Up there, the good news is that you don't have to worry about fouling up farmers and ranchers, because you're north of where that's even a marginal way of life. The bad news os strip-mining an asphaltlike substance mixed with grit at temperatures that hower around 40 below for weeks. Reclaiming the land in this climate is a neat trick. Three cents per barrel have been set aside for the job.

Meanwhile, Fort McMurray, the center of the activity, has become overnight a city of 27,000 with hotels, a municipal pool, three indoor skating rinks, a golf course, a Sears, a Safeway, movies, bowling alleys, regularly scheduled airline service, banks, inflation, polution, crime, juvenile delinquency, drugs and a Kentucky Fried Chicken stand. The Good Fish Indians have gone into the cleaning business. Everybody's making a lot of money.

The Old West has at least half of North America's coal. Montana alone has three times the proven reserves of West Virginia. The stuff is relatively clean to burn, easy to strip, being near the surface, and the miners generally don't have the nasty habit of getting feisty and calling in the United Mine Workers.

The only thing really wrong with it is that it isn't even remotely near anybody who can use it. But the coal companies are working on that. One idea is the unit coal train. Unit coal trains have five locomotives and 100 hopper cars, each loaded with 100 tons, and run about a mile long. Outfits like the Burlington Northern or the Chicago & North Western railroads currently plan to push one of these trains through little burgs like Lusk, Wyo., once every half hour or so for the rest of time or until the coal runs out.

There are also slurry pipelines. You take millions of gallons of the water that is so scarce in this land, load the pipeline with as much crushed coal as it will take and still stay liquid, and then ship it to places where diryt water is not exactly a novelty, like the Mississippi River.

There's got to be a better way, right? Well, there are synfuels. Of course, synfuels from coal cost about twice what Saudi sweet does. Tar and ash byproducts contain some of the most potent carcinogens known to man. And a coal synfuel plant requires as much as 10 billion gallons of water a year. There are plans for 12 of these afoot.

Okay, forget about that. What about burning the coal right where it is and exporting the electicity instead? That's what they're planning to do outside Lynndyl, Utah, where the Intermountain Power Project is being built. A similar plant was scheduled to be built in southern Utah, but the Kaiparowits project was scrapped after sentimentalists argued that they didn't want to gaze at the nearby Grand Canyon through smog.

In Lynndyl, you're so far away from anything that that is less of a problem. But because the land is so dry, every drop of water that the plant uses is taken directly away from agriculture, so the alfalfa gardens of the Mormons there are being returned to sand. Never mind that making the desert bloom is one of the oldest of Western dreams. Decisions must be made.

There's also oil shale. Again, more energy in that in the Old West than there is oil in the Middle East. And oil shale conversion even appears to make economic sense. If you take the area twice the size of Massachusetts around the intersection of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, excavate it as much as 1,500 feet deep, mining the equivalent of the Panama Canal every day, crush it and cook it in a still, you'll have enough gasoline to last almost a century.

Of course, that would leave the interesting question of what you do with the trillion tons of tailings left over. that's literally mountains of waste, off which dust will blow, clouding the air for hundreds of miles. The minerals that will leach off the trailings when the rains hit will make the Colorado River, from which millions get their drinking water, even more unpalatable that it is now. Then there is the question of carcinogens again. And, of course, the process gives off acid rain, which sterilizes land downwind. Downwind is the Great Plains -- the most fertile agriculture the world has ever known.

What else? There's heavy oil. Lots of that, too. One famed energy writer has referred to it as the chocolate mousse of petroleum. It's about as easy to pump.

There's uranium. The Old West has very nearly all the continents' uranium. The Indians of the Old West alone -- Acoma, Colville, Hopi, Navajo, Ute and Wind River, among others -- control l about half of these potential private uranium resources.

Coincidentally, the Old West has more than its share of radiation-related problems. These start with protests against the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant that makes "triggers" for hydrogen bombs right on the edge of the most densely populated place in the Old West -- Denver. The problems extend to St. George, Utah, just downwind from the Nevada nuclear test site. Everybody's appalled at the number of cancer deaths there, and equally upset by the way the federal government repeatedly denied that there was a connection between the bombs and the deaths, although the feds knew otherwise.

And in the dry vastness of central Washington state, there's possibly the largest concentration of nuclear facilities in the world. even though the reactors and nuclear waste dumps are central to the area's economy, the locals tend to get upset when sloppy procedures cause some of the waste to leak.

This recitation does not even begin to get into the list of minerals that could bring new opportunities for industrialization.

In fact, there has been talk in the Utah legislature that the Mormon opposition to the MX might be at least partially related to this. There are some fears that the MX would permanently lock up, as federal reserves, land with vast alumina reserves. The thinking says that if you exploited the alumina, you could stop shipping the electricity form future Intermountain Power Projects to faraway Los Angeles.

Instead, you could use it to create lightweight, versatile but power-consuming aluminum, that metal with such a great future in the 21st century. You could make it the cornerstone of a job-rich, industrialized land, producing airplanes and auto and closing the circle for Utah, catapulting it into an admirable future.

There's both a religious and political aspect to that. Mormon policy encourages large families, and Utah dotes on its children, spending almost half its tax money on education, with mandatory schooling until age 18. But then the children are exported to other parts of the country, because there simply are not enough jobs where they were born. So industrialization takes on a whole new importance. It can be a way of keeping the children home.

You could avoid the mistakes that the people who managed the gold rush in Colorado of the mid-1800s made. You could avoid the mistakes that the people who ran the copper rush in Butte, Mont., in the early parts of this century made. You could avoid the mistakes the people who ran the molybdenum mines quite recently made.


Kent Briggs is the young executive assistant to Scott Matheson, the governor of Utah, and a thoughtful observer. "Westerners," he says, "don't go along with a lot of this living in harmony with the elements. That was a notion that the Indians had. Beautiful Indian Poetry.

"There's a notion here that the resources were made to be developed. That's part of our optimism. One thing that disturbs me about the East is the notion that they've lost their nerve. They've lost their confidence. You don't have that out here. People are aggressive about the land. I don't believe they want to spoil it; that wouldn't be palable public policy. But by the same token, they're not offended if a power plant goes up. What they can be outraged by are some incredibly silly regulations about visibility . . . environmntalists' pipedreams about vistas.

"I see us having a pretty shiny region. There's just an optimism out here that you can change things, that you can fashion and shape the way things are going. We're not pushed around by forces. We recognize that they are there, but you can screw it up or you can catch the wave"

Spinning a beer in a Vail, Colo., ski resort boite, Briggs, an articulate dreamer of big dreams, remarks:

"I've got a particular bias. I was raised up on a farm in Idaho, and so I don't really get off on a lot of this stuff about the joys of the ethereal experience in the great outdoors. To me, I'll take the TransAmerica Building over the Great White Throne any day." (The TransAmerica Building is a San Francisco skyscrapper that some critics consider the ugliest building in North America. The Great White Throne is a sheer, 3,000-foot monolih that is the symbol of Zion National Park.)

"It's a different mind set," Briggs says. "People in the East . . . I understand that they've fouled their nest there. But we don't believe we have to do that. We'll have to make some compromises. You can expect that there's going to be some winning and losing.

"But I believe in the city. The city is what puts the finishing touch on a human being. Civilization was not possible until the Neolithic revolution, until we ceased becoming nomads and become stable in one spot and started developing a culture.

"Culture cannot take place on a firm in Idaho. Hell, going to school was a profound experience for me. I went to Idaho State University in Pocatello. I remember sitting on the steps, the first day that classes started, and the dean of the college of liberal arts was telling us what to do.

"He was a great dean. He said, "You'll have to have a two point [grade average] at the end of the year. However, the first semester, a one-six will suffice. we will allow you to have hover there for one semester. And that is sheer magnanimity on our part."

His voice is hushed as he returns to being nothing but a husky farm boy.

"I said, 'My God!' No one had ever talked like that before! I remember sitting there and shaking my head and saying, 'Wow! I've found a home.!' Because, God, that was an incedible experience to be exposed to that kind of stuff. It changed me. Changed me profoundly.

"So I value institutions like colleges. I've got this thing about colleges; I've got this thing about cities. I'm not going to be offended to see in oil derrick on the Great Salt Lake. Amoco. Punch two wells, hit oil. High sulfur content, but the oil is there.

"You got to bring that stuff up! To me, it's a symbol of man's progress.