Interior Secretary James G. Watt, in his first six tumultuous months as custodian of the nation's land and resources, has created shock waves from sea to shining sea.

But here, where the tumbleweed rides dry winds up the Nevada side of the Sierra toward the other world of California, where the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion began and most of the land and resources also begin, the shock turns mostly to the quiet glee of a battle won.

The acceptance of Watt is far from universal in the West, which, like any huge region, has too much political, economic and environmental diversity for easy generalization.

But most seasoned western politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, scoff at polls that show Watt hurting President Reagan in what they consider the "real" West. They joke that the wounded cries come from the West's two antagonists, "the two Easts" represented by California and Washington, D.c. And they look at an outsider in disbelief at the thought that running a political campaign against Watt's policies might be wise in the 1982 western elections.

The only caveat they express is that it is too early to tell whether the political spinoff from Watt's policies and the storm of protests from the country's populated coastlines will reach here, especially if they begin to hurt Reagan in those population centers.

Across the Great Basin in Salt Lake City, where Ronald Reagan stood tall in 1980 and declared "I am a sagebrush rebel," a top aide to Democratic Gov. Scott A. Matheson declares flatly it "would be foolish to try to run against Watt in Utah."

In Arizona, Donna Carlson-West, a Republican state legislator who led Arizona's rush to join the Sagebrush Rebellion last year, says joyfuly: "We've won the battle without firing a shot."

In Colorado, where the anti-Watt environmental movement may be stronger than anywhere else in the Rocky Mountain West, Democratic Gov. Richard D. Lamm, whose term expires next year, says Watt has "treated us fairly and I don't want to get into a fight with him. I've got a lot riding on the guy."

Lamm says Watt reminds him of a landlord he once had: "I didn't agree with all he did, but I didn't want to kick him in the shins, either."

Lamm's reference to a landlord was appropriate. The federal government, with Watt as landlord, controls 36 percent of the land in Colorado. In other parts of the West, the totals run over 50 percent. Here in Nevada, where the rebellion began in the State Assembly building (halfway between a casino built by U.S. Sen. Paul Laxalt and a 19th century Pony Express stop), the feds control 87 percent of the land.

It was Nevada that first took legislative action, and laid the plans for court action, to try to wrest huge blocks of federal land away from Washington and turn them over to the states. The issue was emotional and symbolic, and quickly picked up the nickname of the Sagebrush Rebellion.

It also was at least partly a western mirage. Most western governors, as angry as their surly legislatures over what they considered heavy-handed treatment on grazing, mining, water and other policies of the "colonialist" feds, said privately that the idea of states taking over the vast federal land holdings was unrealistic.

Gov. Bruce Babbitt, an Arizona Democrat, went so far as to veto his legislature's rebellion bill. His emotionally charged Republican legislature overrode the veto.

In Washington, President, Carter's interior secretary, Cecil D. Andrus, a westerner, argued that the lands never had belonged to the states, even though most of the western rhetoric talked of "the return" of the land.

"The public-domain lands of the West were acquired by the national government through purchase and warfare at the expense of all the Americans living at that time," Andrus said. "They have always been federally owned. These conditions were well understood and accepted by all westerners" when western territories became states.

In fact, in the past the federal government has tried to dispose of the wide expanses of the West in an effort to encourage population movement, to build continent-crossing railroads and fulfill the 19th century belief in the "manifest destiny" of a country that steteched from Atlantic to Pacific.

In the 1850s the government offered the land at $1.25 an acre to all takers. There were few. During the Civil War, Washington began a homesteading policy that eventually distributed 288 million acres free to pioneers willing to work the land. Still later, huge land grants were given to railroad-builders to encourage them to push across the wastelands.

It is one of the ironies now that many Wall Streeters believe that, for the struggling modern railroads, the vast coal and timber holding given to them are far more valuable than their transportation systems.

Out of such ironies, and the certainty that the resource-laden West has a value far beyond the wildest dreams of the 19th century, the Sagebrush Rebellion was given a major boost from commercial interests. It also added to the environmentalists' fears that, beyond the Pecos, the "bad guys" might ride rampant once again.

Federal policies turned strikingly toward environmental protection and conservation during the 1960s and '70s. Cattlemen ran into new federal regulations on grazing. Miners encountered an array of regulations that made the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management the most mistrusted bureaucracy in the West.

If few major western politicians took the land-takeover aspects of the Sagebrush Rebellion seriously, almost all joined the chorus of harsh criticism of federal policies that seemed to be "locking up" their lands.

Ronald Reagan, even though he was from the "other East" of California, picked up quickly on an issue that crossed all party lines in the West. The West harkened to the siren sound of Reagan's declaration that he was one of them and delivered half the electoral votes he needed to become president. Reagan, in turn, gave them James G. Watt.

It is fascinating to listen to some of the unreconstruced, true-grit rebels talk now about Watt. In some ways, they are as concerned as the Sierra Club, the Friends of the Earth and the National Wildlife Federation. But unlike the groups that think Watt is doing badly, they fear he is doing too well.

"Watt has defused our rebellion," Nevada state Sen. Norman Glaser, an Elko Democrat who led the fight for Sagebrush action in the state assembly, says almost painfully, as if a dream is disappointing. "He might do too good a job and reduce the vitality of our movement."

Glaser would rather see his full-fledged land transfer take place, he says, because he fears that after Watt is gone the feds will be back, as his western lingo puts it, "with the same policies of pistol-whipping the miners and dry-gulching the ranchers."

Glaser is so nervous about Watt's success overwhelming his own success that he recently dispatched his Sagebush Rebellion co-sponsor, a Tuscarora rancher and assemblyman, Dean Rhoads, to Washington to "express these very fears" directly to Watt. Rhoads reported back that Watt, who talks of returning small parcels of land to the states, didn't think a wholesale land turnover was "very imminent."

That matched the views of other westerners close to the Reagan administration. Shortly after the inauguration, Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt, a close friend of the president, declared that his West's rebellion was over and won. With Watt in office, he hinted, the lawsuits and legislative resolutions would wither away.

Watt himself has said repeatedly that "a good neighbor policy" with the West is far more likely to allay the anger than a radical turnover of lands the states might not be able to administer.

If Watt's critics on both American coasts see him as the man who would deform the West to excavate its wealth, Watt argues just the contrary. Watt says he understands that both the land and the political clout of the West is fragile.

"I fear for the day when the industrial Midwest and the New England states wake up to the realization that their jobs have gone to the Sun Belt and the West at a rate so fast that they've lost their political base," the secretary says. "And I fear the political people will come to Washington from those areas . . . and they'll nationalize the several industries in the energy field. With a nationalized energy program, they'll come and destroy my native West. And I don't want that to happen."

That is not an argument that sells well among the environmentalists, or convinces too many outside the West and the energy field. But it sells well here.

"We watch this firestorm around the secretary out here and we're a little amused by it," says Kent Briggs, administrative assistant to Utah's Gov. Matheson. "For the most part, I think he still enjoys a broad constituency in the West except for the people who were against him in the first place."

Briggs says he believes that most national polls that show Watt's environmental policies hurting Reagan in the West are "polluted" by California's 20 million people, who overwhelm the populations of the western states east of the Sierra. Like most westeners, he doesn't consider California part of his West.

"Watt a political liability to Reagan in Utah?" Briggs asks. "I have a hard time believing that."

"You have to understand that it is an eastern myth that westeners want a wholesale destrution of their own environment. We understand we are protectors of a national heritage. We live here. It is our heritage, too. Gov. Matheson's opposition to the MX missile indicates that. The missile system would have changed the face of our state and we don't want that.

"But what we are seeing now is a reversal of the presumption of proof on land and mineral development. Before, the presumption was that we would not develop unless reasons could be shown to the contrary. The presumption now is that we are going to develop unless reasons are shown to the contrary. I don't think that violates the idea of protecting the environment."

Still, even in the West, the final decision is not in on a lightning-rod interior secretary who seems determined to start a revolution that affects millions far beyond the buttes, the mesas and the tumbleweed. The fear about Watt here, if there are serious misgivings beyond those of the environmental groups, is that his policies are so abrasive outside the West that national politics could do him in.

In Denver, Jim Wilson, president of the pro-development Rocky Mountains Energy Co., says there is some concern among developers that Watt may be aggravating powerful political forces that will overwhelm him and that his policies are so wide-ranging "he may be throwing out the baby with the bath water."

Wilson says some western developers also worry that the Watt revolution could be so total "that it would not do business that much good because it would tie everyone up in more legal battles."

And still others in the West indicate that the flamboyant showdowns between Watt and the environmentalists make good press but don't mean much to the average voter.

Sen. Bill Armstrong (R-Colo.), a supporter, said he is convinced that Watt will become known as "a great secretary." When asked what Coloradoans thought of Watt, Armstrong replied that 15 percent think he is the greatest, 5 percent think he is awful, 40 percent are indifferent "and the rest have never heard of him."

And there are many indications that western Democrats, especially the governors, most of whom are Democrats, are biding their time cautiously and quietly until they see just how deep Watt digs his own hole.

In a House Interior Committee hearing recently, Chairman Morris Udall (D-Ariz.) told Watt that many governors privately expressed concerns to him about Watt's policies, Watt replied that the governors were with him unanimously.

Udall just grinned wryly and said their conversation reminded him of the time President Kennedy sent a general and a professor on the same Vietnam inspection trip. After reading both their reports, Kennedy asked them: "Are you sure you two gentlemen were in the same country?"

That is one of the problems out West: It is made up of many countries," with divergent interests.

Udall, a Democrat from Tucson who did much to build up the policies that Watt seems intent on dismantling, has indicted the Watt controversy could be his ticket to re-election. A lot of other western Democratic politicians are watching closely, too. Of 11 western senators up for reelection in 1982, seven are Democrats and four Republicans.

But Leo Corbet, the Republican president of the state senate in Udall's Arizona, is unconcerned.

Corbet says he expects the Democrats to make an issue of Watt in 1982 but he doubts the impact will be great in Arizona. The Sagebrush Rebellion is not the only issue there, he says.

"The overall job the Reagan administration is doing will far overshadow Watt," Corbet contends. "If Watt becomes the Earl Butz of the administration, I don't think that will have much impact."