ON PAPER, the argument for selling off or giving away vast portions of the western United States is impressive. The federal government, after all, does own about half of all the land between the Great Plains and the Pacific, while it owns relatively little east of the Rockies. So it is not surprising that western officials, including many members of Congress, are pushing the idea that the time has come for Washington to start turning that land over to the states.

Some of that western land is in the hands of the National Park Service, and more of it is covered with national forests. But most of this land is supervised by the Bureau of Land Management, which has few friends and many enemies these days.

As much as anything, it has been the changes in the operations of the BLM in the past few years that triggered the so-called "sagebrush rebellion," that surging effort to oust the federal government from its role as the West's major landholder. Instructed by Congress to become an aggressive manager of the land, rather than a mere custodian, the BLM is caught between the directives from Washington and the wishes of its western clients and neighbors. Add to that the new interest in environmental issues -- preserving wilderness, curtailing pollution, protecting forests and watersheds -- and it is easy to understand why westerners have become convinced that Washington is trying to fence them in.

That, in turn, is why several senators led by Orrin Hatch of Utah, are sponsoring the "Western Lands Distribution and Regional Equalization Act of 1979." It would provide a mechanism through which the federal government could hand over some or all of the unreserved lands to state governments. It is those lands -- not so much the parks and forests -- that are at issue in the western uprising. By refusing to open up (or by closing down) these holdings to development, the federal government has crippled the economic progress of the entire West -- or so the argument goes. Sen. Hatch has taken to calling the West "an economic colony of the rest of the country" and suggested that BLM officials have the role of old colonial magistrates.

So far, the argument has been largely one-sided because many of those who might join in have been deeply involved in the debate over the Alaskan lands bill, which raises some of the same issues. But once the Alaskan question is settled, it seems inevitable that the "sagebrush rebellion" will pick up momentum and that the fight for control of the West will become the next great environment/development/energy exploitation battle.