In this scarred city that is the symbol of Montana's plundered past, the history of the colonial West is as real as the huge open-pit copper mine slowly advancing on the city from the east.

"Butte is the classic example," says former state legislator Dorothy Bradley. "Nothing was saved. Everything was exploited. When the mines ran out, nothing was left."

Copper is still being mined in Butte, but the richest lodes are gone and the city's population had dwindled to a fourth of its World War I peak of 100,000. Butte has become, in the words of Montana University political scientist James Lopach, "a battered town, an unloved town."

But the ruined onetime boomtowns of Butte and Anaconda and others like them have left an enduring legacy in the West. For modern westerners, the memory of what happened when the copper or the gold or the silver ran out has produced a shared conviction that the people of the West, rather than outsiders, should profit from any future mineral development. In Montana this legacy has been translated into a 30 percent severance tax on coal that is under legal challenge from coal companies and their utility customers in other regions.

Not all western states have been as flagrantly despoiled as Montana, where 46 million tons of copper were mined between 1910 and 1975. However, they all share a consciousness of a semi-colonial status recently enhanced by the nation's energy shortages. Because the rich coal, oil and uranium reserves of the West hold the key to national economic survival, the West sees a future in which its land will be literally torn apart to serve the needs of other Americans.

Reflecting a prevalnet belief, Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm declares: "We will develop the oil shale and we will develop the coal, but we don't want to be the garbage heap of the West."

Other western officeholders often feel the same way, and with good reason.

In Wyoming, a prospective coal slurry pipeline will use enormous quantities of irreplaceable water to transport coal to the South and Midwest. In Colorado, agriculture faces a persistent squeeze as water is diverted to energy development. Ugly new boomtowns, removed from Butte in distance but not in spirit, have sprung up in Colorado and Wyoming. These towns, too, meet the description of "battered and unloved."

One of the traditional characteristics of a colony is that development serves the needs of the mother country rather then the area in which development occurs. This is what westerners see happening today in their region, where energy and water shortages are becoming commonplace in the midst of plenty.

Western officials say that when they seek to restrict the rate of development in their states, they are reminded of national needs, for energy. But when these same officials ask for more gasoline, as in California, or try to preserve imperiled Amtrak routes, as in Montana and the Northwest, they are denounced as profligate or economically unrealistic.

"We haven't convinced them yet that we're not consuming gas like some exotic fruit drink," says Gray Davis, executive secretary to California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.

From a western point of view, the increase in gasoline consumption common to the region simply reflects the realities of population growth, vast distances and a booming economy. Sitting atop bountiful untapped reserves like Colorado's oil shales and California's heavy-tar crude oils, most westerners regard the "energy shortage" as just another eastern invention.

An April poll by the Reno Evening Gazette showed that Nevadans disbelieved, by an overwhelming 10-to-1 ratio, that the energy shortage was real. When that shortage actually arrived in Nevada a month later, state officials responded in terms more appropriate to a small, independent nation rather than a sparsely settled state. The most popular suggestion came from Sen. Paul Laxalt, a conservative Republican who usually preaches the virtues of free enterprise. Laxalt urged the state to go into the oil business on its own and purchase needed supplies on the open market.

While such a plan might have seemed out of place in other parts of the country, it won immediate and widespread acceptance in a region long accustomed to providing its own energy, its own food and its own justice.

Over and over again in the West, one hears that "they" - an omnivorous pronoun that usually includes President Carter, the federal bureaucracy, easterners and the national media - "just don't understand our problems."

The examples are manifold. Typical is what happened in Utah last year when state officials were attempting to determine the site for the Intermountain Power Project, a huge development that will provide electricity for energy-short Los Angeles.

The preferred location in Utah, where 66 percent of the land is federally owned, was an area known as the Salt Wash, which had the twin advantages of being a barren wasteland unsuitable for agriculture and of having adequate supplies of underground water.

Federal officals, however, gave Utah little more choice than if it had been Uganda. The Salt Wash location, they said, was too close to national parks, which must have a pristine air quality. So IPP will be built near Lyndyll, a pastoral area of productive farmland where agriculture will give way to energy development.

For those who expect to use Utah's scenic Capitol Reef park, the federally imposed decision is a welcome one. For those concerned with the rapidly accelerating loss of valuable cropland, it is just another instance of federal intervention that ignores regional realities.

Not all ot the inequities involve rural lands.

City officials in the West observe that federal assistance formulas, especially in housing, favor older eastern cities at the expense of newer western ones. As a result, one study shows that the percentage of federal aid to governments increased nearly twice as fast in the Northeast as in the West from 1970 to 1975, even though the West was the high-growth area of the nation during this period.

Western resentment of regional inequity is not a new phenomenon. What is new is an increasing transnational regional attitude that recognizes that bordering states and provinces in Mexico and Canada also often are isolated from their faraway capitals.

The government of California, for example, has taken on a quasi-national role in attempting to barter for Mexican oil and Canadian natural gas. Mexico, in turn, is trying to gain the assistance of influential Californians in an effort to reduce U.S. barriers to Mexican Imports.

This transnationalism had led, in extreme case, to discussions of a "western nation" that would be self-sufficient in all important resources. On a more practical level, it is causing a breakdown of the borders both to the north and the south.

While the easy passage of Mexicans back and forth across the border to jobs in the United States is a much-discussed phenomenon, movement in both directions across the Canadian border is also commonplace. In the "high-line" counties of northern Montana, Americans cross into Alberta to take advantage of low-cost health care, while Canadians come south for American consumer products.

Like Montana and Wyoming in the United States, Alberta is the energy breadbasket of its nation. Its policies in taxing natural gas were directly copied by Montana when that state enacted its 30 percent coal severance tax, the highest in the country.

Today, this severance tax is under court challenge in a lawsuit that has the utmost significance for western states. If the legal challenge prevails, it would effectively curtail the ability of western states to control mining and energy exploration within their borders.

Some say that the very existence of the lawsuit is testimony to a profound change in the West.

Historically, in states such as Montana, the big mining companies corrupted the legislature and dominated the judicial system, resisting all federal intervention as an invasion of states' rights. Now, the states' rights argument is made by the Montana attorney general and his environmentalist allies, while coal companies prefer to tak their chances in Washington.

Against the allied power of the companies and the federal government, Montanans of all political persuasions have united in defense of the coal severance tax. This consensus is based not on a common view of the future, but on a shared belief that those who live in the region, and their descendants, are entitled to a share of the colonial wealth.

As Montana historian K. Ross Toole puts it, in words that express a regional insight:

"On development in Montana, there's a classic split. There are those who feel very strongly that we need to preserve what we have. There are others who favor developmenet. But almost everyone agrees that we don't want to become Bayonne, N.J. it isn't a matter of keeping Montana Pristine - nobody's that stupid. It's keeping a measure of what we have." CAPTION: Picture, The Berkeley pit copper mine, with the old section of Butte just beyond it. Montanans are determined to prevent plundering of mineral resources in future. By John McDonnell - The Washington Post; Picture 2, The equipment for this underground mine at Butte is being dismantled. By James A. Parcell - The Washington Post; Picture 3, Mining machinery, a railroad line and housing compete for space in a section of Butte. By Richard Darcey - The Washington Post; Picture 4, As boom towns develop in energy-rich areas of the West, trailer parks such as this one at Craig, Colo., are becoming increasingly common. By John McDonnell - The Washington Post; Chart, no caption, By Dave Cook - The Washington Post