Law and order is coming to the California desert.

Long the refuge of hermits, outlaws, prospectors, dune-buggy enthusiasts, and people just trying to get away from it all, this vast expanse of arid, federally owned land between Los Angeles and the Arizona border is about to come under the control of the nation's newest police force: the Bureau of Land Management Rangers.

With 16 rangers to patrol 12 million acres, there won't exactly be an officer behind every cactus. But the mere prospect of a fully trained, fully armed desert ranger force has brought cries of protest from those who regard this barren land as the last stronghold of true personal liberty.

"These public lands have been the last really free territory in the United States," says Keith O'Hara, a 47-year-old prospector. "These rangers will place us under the gun and make our desert a complete police state."

Trying to head off the rangers, who will take to the bush in July, miners' organizations, off-road vehicle groups and desert rock collectors have initiated lawsuits, letter-writing campaigns, protests and public hearings.

Peter Silvain, the BLM special agent in charge of law enforcement, maintains that his agency has no intention of depriving free public access to the vast federal domain.

"A lot of these special interest groups are very emotional and get off half-cocked," Silvain said. "All we're trying to do is protect the resources. We have to save the legacy for tomorrow."

Until President Ford signed the Land Policy Management Act last October, the BLM had virtually no authority to enforce its regulations on, for example, desert mine safety. Rangers were few, unarmed and could do little more than politely ask lawbreakers to desist or call the county sheriff, often two hours' drive away.

"The old law wasn't very strong." BLM's Silvain said. "The regulations were strange and hardly enforceable. Now we have a law that's strong and to the point."

With the new ranger force - now in training here and at the federal law enforcement and BLM's training center in Glynco, Ga. - and BLM's new regulatory power, many old desert hands realize that the years of ignoring the federal government are over. Particularly worried are the miners working the windswept hills here who see in the rangers and new BLM regulations a threat to their way of life.

"Here we have a government bureau almost totally ignorant of mining being authorized to control mining," said O'Hara, leader of the militant Western Mining Council chapter here. "They are promulgating regulations that are unenforceable, unreasonably and impossible to small miners. Those guys are wiping us out."

Activists with the Western Mining Council, which claims 2,000 members in 11 western states, warn that attempts by BLM rangers to enforce mine regulations could provoke violent resistance. "I am truly afraid." O'Hara said, "if they try to enforce these regulations some people are going to get killed out here."

Such attitudes have stirred BLM to request small arms and helicopters for the new desert force. Besides the angry miners, BLM officials report seeing scores of drug-running operations and paramilitary activities on the desert.

In January, Los Angeles County and San Bernardino County sheriffs discovered in a desert bunker, a half-track and enough arms to supply 200 men. The arms were linked to a splinter right-wing organization. At least one other extremist group also claims to have arms buried in the desert.

Not as menacing, but far more numerous, are the off-road vehicle enthusiasts who pour into the desert every weekend, riding everything from four wheel-drive trucks to dirt bikes and dune buggies. Nearly four million off-roader visists are made to the desert every year, according to BLM estimates.

Under new BLM regulations, over 90 per cent of the desert floor will soon be off limits to off-roaders: many enthusiasts thus see the rangers as a repressive force.

"We really feel the rangers should only be for education," said Tony Lenz, southern California director of the Off-Road Vehicle Association, which claims over 6,000 family members. "We don't think they should be out there waving a gun in our face telling us what to do."

BLM officials maintain that their new regulations are necessary to protect the fragile desert environment from becoming scarred by track marks, oil slicks and rusting hulks of abandoned vehicles.

Steve Smith, the BLM agent responsible for setting up the desert patrol in the Mojave Desert, pointed to the devastation at Dove Springs. Once an isolated canyon, Dove Springs is now a favorite run for dirt bikes and looks like the scratched-out side of a strip mine.

"You can see what these people do driving all over the place," Smith, 31, said, "We're not saying that off-road use has to be abandoned, but it must be regulated."

Miners and off-roaders aren't the only ones threatened by the new BLM ranger force. Thieves have made a lucrative business of selling the rare dessert shrubbery at high prices to fashionable landscapers throughout the Southwest. At one BLM station near the Nevada border, unarmed rangers last year stood helplessly as over 5,000 plants were taken in over three months.

Other more senseless criminal activities are carried out by vandals defacing old mines and Indian artifacts throughout the desert. Some Indian antiquities, including petroglyph rock paintings 10,000 years old, have been permanently damaged.

With the new force, the BLM hopes to stop some of these criminal actions, but in protecting the desert resources the BLM rangers will also be putting an end to a unique, free-wheeling era. For so long the home of desperados and incorrigibles, the desert will soon see police cars and flashing red lights just like those on city streets.

"It's sort of a shame," said BLM agent Bill Rolen. "This all came about because mass society is pressurizing this wild environment. That open life we always had out there - it's unfortunate it has to go."