For four years, Bruce Boyens was a symbol of the federal presence in the coal-rich hills of southern Appalachia. In faded jeans and mud-caked boots, he stalked the sites of strip mines, forcing coal companies to restore the natural landscape of hills and mountains they had laid bare.

When operators threatened to beat up his inspectors, he called in federal marshals to subdue them. When state officials seemed too cozy with coal companies, he leaned on them to get tough.

Now his days as a fearsome enforcer in the coal fields are over. Boyens quit Thursday, a month after the chief of the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining sent him a terse notice that he was being transferred to Washington, far from Appalachia where his family has deep roots.

OSM called it a salute to his expertise. Boyens, who had no choice, took it as a "get out" letter.

Boyens has become a symbol of another sort, a casualty of a bureaucratic civil war being waged far from the coal fields.

Without changing a word of the tough federal strip mining law, the Reagan administration has systematically weakened the agency that enforces it. Dozens of stringent regulations are being relaxed, including rules governing everything from the size and shape of sedimentation ponds to the placement of topsoil on reclaimed hills.

In the course of a massive reorganization, coupled with a personnel cutback that will shrink the agency by more than 30 percent, regulators tagged as "zealots" have been moved out. A new team led by former coal industry consultants and coal state officials has taken charge.

Citations against mine operators have dropped markedly; appeals of adverse court rulings have been cut in half. There is increased discretion for state regulators, whose past laxity prompted Congress to enact the sweeping law five years ago.

OSM is only one front in the administration's "regulatory reform" crusade. But from the start, the small agency has been a big symbol of what Ronald Reagan was elected to change.

The Heritage Foundation, think tank of the Reagan transition team, fingered OSM as a classic case of "regulatory excesses." Interior Secretary James G. Watt branded it a "bureaucratic nightmare . . . more designed to obstruct coal production than to further the cause of reclamation."

Watt made the taming of OSM his No. 1 priority and he points to it now as the place he has made his biggest mark.

Watt and his new OSM team say the changes reflect the advent of reason, not a retreat from the goal of reclamation. They note that the federal law, while stringent, left wide maneuvering room for its enforcers, and they insist that their predecessors shared too little of that room with industry and the states.

But Boyens' view from the field is considerably different. In his Knoxville office, surrounded by souvenirs from his activist past as a mine workers lawyer, he said:

"I have to say I think they're gutting the program. They got people anxious. They took away their job security. They made speeches about getting the OSM zealots off the industry's back. You start to go home at night and ask yourself, what does this administration want from me? After a while, no matter how hard I pushed people, it was like pushing on a string.

"Some of our regulations were bad. Some of them needed changing. But an across-the-board attack is wrong. We had a strong program. We had industry complying. This could be a signal to operators that they can do what they want now."

The men appointed to change OSM, who knew the agency from the other side, dismiss such attacks as unfounded.

OSM Director James R. Harris was a coal industry consultant and state senator who helped write Indiana's strip mining law. His deputy, Steven J. Griles, was a leader of Virginia's strip mine reclamation office.

They saw OSM as a young, overzealous agency filled with people who had never seen a strip mine, a federal monster that shackled the coal industry and the states.

They arrived here as determined to tame OSM as Boyens was to keep it fearsome.

"You must not only intellectually believe in what you're trying to change, but you must emotionally believe in it," said the 34-year-old Griles. "If you're not emotionally committed, you'll never make it, not when you're up against the federal bureaucracy."

Griles is known around OSM for his 18-hour days, his seven-day weeks and his unflagging loyalty to the administration. On the wall behind his desk two photos hang, showing a smiling Griles with Watt and Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.).

Warner inscribed one: "To Steve Griles. The jobs of many Virginians--and Americans in the coal industry nationwide--are looking to you for leadership."

Griles and Harris had shown their commitment to change early on. Their two states had filed a U.S. Supreme Court challenge to the federal strip mining law, and they had helped prepare the case. Watt, days before joining Interior, had filed a brief supporting the challenge on behalf of Mountain States Legal Foundation.

The case was still pending when the new leaders arrived at OSM, creating confusion in the ranks. Suddenly, the federal law was being enforced by men who were on record against it.

In the solicitor's office, one team of lawyers was defending the law before the high court while another was drafting memos on how to dismantle OSM in case the challengers won. When the court upheld the law, 9 to 0, in October, an Interior solicitor recalled telephoning Griles to report: "Did you hear? We won." Griles responded: "No. We lost."

Griles said he does not remember the conversation, but stressed that the court battle is far behind him. "I believed the law raised constitutional questions. Obviously the Supreme Court has answered those questions."

OSM was due for a transformation even before Watt arrived.

The strip mining law, in a blend of old and new federalism, said OSM would police the coal fields only temporarily, until the 24 coal states rewrote their laws to conform with tough new national standards. Then OSM would pass the torch to the states, making reorganization and layoffs inevitable.

The Reagan team pushed forward with a swifter and more sweeping reorganization than was planned in the President Carter's years. OSM's 1,010 authorized slots were cut to 650; its five regional offices were abolished. Federal inspection forces were cut sharply, even in states where OSM was still in charge.

Most technical positions were reassigned to two new centers, in Denver and Pittsburgh, giving many biologists, hydrologists and other scientists the choice of moving or leaving the agency.

The shifts, combined with the change in philosophy, prompted an exodus from the technical, legal and management ranks.

When the dust had cleared, Harris said, only one of 50 top managers from the Carter era remained in his original job, a statistic Watt cites in speeches as evidence that his OSM campaign has succeeded.

Harris and Griles acknowledged the transfers were sometimes used to push out or subdue regulators viewed as overzealous by the new team.

"I believe when someone has been trained in one philosophy it's easier to move him than to change his ways of operating he's held for a long time," Harris said. "We had to put these people in new jobs so we could train them in our philosophy."

Referring to OSM's two top officials in Denver who resigned early in the new administration, Griles said, "Those were two people who had to go. If they didn't leave, they were going to be moved."

While the shakeup allowed Griles and Harris to assemble their team, it also created morale problems and a drain on staff expertise, Griles acknowledged.

Four of the top officials who oversaw inspection and enforcement from Washington have left their jobs, two in the last month. That was one reason cited by OSM for trying to transfer Boyens here.

"We tore this agency to hell. Now we have to build it back up," Griles said.

One part of the buildup was a new system of "hands-on" management. Routine judgment calls once made by attorneys or technicians in the field are now routed through Griles or his aides.

This was done, according to one memo, to ensure that policy calls conform to "the secretary's goals of decreasing regulatory restraints on productivity or deferring to state decisionmaking in local matters."

The approach tamed many former firebrands, who saw their recommendations for court appeals, for tougher regulations, for environmental impact studies stop at their new bosses' desks.

Some sought transfers; some became moles for Hill Democrats or environmentalists. Others, once known for working late hours and weekends, became clock punchers and did as they were told.

"I had to decide if what I was doing was absurd or obscene. I've decided it's absurd so I'm still here," one Carter-era veteran said recently. "I used to make national policy when I made decisions. Now my decisions get passed along the line and reversed. They're made by my boss's boss's boss's boss and I've become a drone."

The new team has put its imprint on almost every quarter of OSM.

Take the obscure field of administrative appeals, a process barely visible to outsiders, but the heart of policymaking because it sets the limits of OSM's regulatory reach.

This is how it works: OSM cites a coal operator for poor reclamation practices. If the operator appeals to an administrative law judge and wins, OSM loses its right to regulate against those practices. To regain it, OSM can file an appeal with Interior's Board of Surface Mining Appeals.

In the last year, OSM's appeals of cases lost to industry have dropped by more than 50 percent.

Another major drop came in the number of citations against mine operators for violating the law. In Southern Appalachia, OSM violation notices dropped from 3,352 in 1980 to 1,005 in 1981, well before OSM ceded power over the coal fields to any state in the region.

OSM spokesmen call the drop a sign of voluntary compliance from industry and the states. Several former inspectors called it a sign of short staff and low morale.

One of the most far-reaching shifts came down to a single word change in a key regulation, the rule OSM uses to judge whether a state is ready to police its strip mines. The Carter-era OSM refused to relinquish control unless states rewrote their laws to be "as stringent as" OSM's.

The new rule says they must be only as "effective," giving states much more freedom to deviate from strict federal guidelines.

Nowhere is the change in direction more evident than in the feverish campaign to rewrite hundreds of pages of highly technical Carter-era regulations. The rules not only required companies to prevent environmental damage, they also told them how to do it--how to build sedimentation ponds, how to impound mine wastes, what species of grass to plant on reclaimed hills.

The proposed rule changes pouring out of OSM would give coal companies and state regulators more leeway to come up with their solutions, requiring only an "effects test"--whether a pond or impoundment prevents flooding, pollution, landslides and other damage.

This "regulatory rewrite" campaign has consumed more time and staff than any other front of the OSM battle, yet it is here that the new team has made the least headway. More than four dozen proposed rule changes are snagged in the courts or in the circuitous federal rule-making process, silent testament to the resilience of the bureaucracy OSM's leaders hope to tame.

"We had all our regs ready for public comment last September. The problem ever since has been getting them through the bureaucracy," said a harried Dean Hunt, a former industry consultant hired by Griles to head up the revision of technical regulations.

Hunt and other OSM officials concede that they underestimated the difficulty of their task. Teams of biologists, hydrologists, inspectors, technicians, clerks, typists, editors and managers have been assigned to the job since Watt took office.

Each rule traveled across more than a dozen desks, Hunt said, from the staff member who wrote it to a supervisor, to solicitors, to the chief OSM solicitor, to Griles, to a succession of top Interior officials, to the Office of Management and Budget and back to Interior.

Watt originally set a deadline of July, 1981, for finishing the rules. But that became October, 1981, then January, 1982, then July, 1982. Then came a lawsuit from environmentalists, which OSM settled out of court, agreeing to conduct environmental impact studies that will further delay the rules.

For now, the stringent Carter-era rules remain in force.

In ways, the conflicts within OSM have roots in the long and bitter battle for the strip mining law itself. The titanic congressional struggle lasted six years, polarizing the environmentalists and citizens groups who sought the law, the coal companies and state officials who fought it. The measure was vetoed twice by then-President Ford before Carter signed it into law in 1977.

"There's still a tremendous amount of bitterness on both sides," said Rep. John F. Seiberling (D-Ohio), an author of the law who has kept close watch on the OSM changes. "The environmentalists felt the coal industry was a bunch of selfish, ruthless ogres who didn't care about people or the environment. The coal companies felt environmentalists were impractical people trying to hurt the coal industry."

And so, Seiberling said, OSM was destined to be a battleground. "I expect it'll keep seesawing. If the next administration is more concerned about protecting the land, it'll change again. It's a good thing we have a several hundred years' supply of coal. Nobody can wreck it all at once."