He considers himself a conservationist, an outdoorsman and a lover of nature. He would rather ride horses than walk. On his first visit to Camp David as president, Ronald Reagan was appalled to find that Richard Nixon had paved the riding trails.

As a rancher of varying sorts for more than four decades, Reagan is a careful steward of his own land. The trails and woodlands at Rancho del Cielo are well managed, and Reagan has rattlesnakes trapped and carted away because he does not want to kill them. He believes in the value of open space, for himself and his countrymen.

In California, the Reagan gubernatorial administration added 145,500 acres of land and two underwater Pacific Ocean preserves to the state park system. He signed legislation requiring auto emission controls that were more stringent than the controls required by federal law. Given a choice between alternate measures to protect California's few remaining wild rivers, Reagan signed the more environmentally protective of the two bills.

In 1968, he defied the state's influential dam-building establishment and the Army Corps of Engineers by saving scenic Round Valley from a high dam which would have flooded it. Reagan said that the building of a dam would violate a treaty made long ago with a tiny Indian tribe. "We've broken too damn many treaties," he said.

But that is only part of the story. As governor, Reagan also fought to reduce the size of the Redwood National Park which Congress created during his administration. He opposes federal and state land-use controls as intrusions on private property, and sees no contradiction in the taxation benefits his 688-acre ranch receives from a state law favoring agricultural land use.

As president, he has tried to weaken air-pollution controls. He has been unresponsive to the complaints of Canadian officials and domestic conservationists who warn of the lake-destroying menace, acid rain. Candidate Reagan proudly classified himself a "Sagebrush Rebel." He appointed a leading light of that rebellion, James G. Watt, as his secretary of the interior. And he has brushed aside criticisms of Watt, which have come even from staunch Reagan supporters, as the work of "environmental extremists."

Rarely has a public official so fully exemplified the contradictions of his own region as Reagan does on environmental issues. He is a true westerner, typifying a region which throughout its tumultuous history has been torn by conflicting claims of development and preservation and has now become the principal national battleground of that struggle.

This conflict reflects the fragility of the West, which is at once the most abundant and optimistic region of the nation and the one in which water and population resources are most precariously balanced.

Throughout Reagan's adult lifetime the contradictions between western expectations and western limitations have been especially evident in the region's relationship with the federal government. Westerners always have fancied themselves independent from Washington, which until well into the 20th century did little to manage or control the expanses of timber, grazing and desert lands technically under its jurisdiction.

But westerners also have always been dependent on the federal government, which drove out the Indians and Mexicans, laid the telegraph lines, provided the homesteads and subsidized water for agricultural development.

The nerve ends of this contradiction between dependence and independence were touched by the Carter administration's decision in 1977 to weigh water projects on a cost-accounting basis. They have been frayed since then by Watt's readiness to open wilderness areas to energy exploration, a decision supported by President Reagan.

"The paradox of the West," says Watt's fellow Westerner, Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, "is that people consistently destroy what they come out to seek."

Reagan's mixed environmental record is a product of the timing of his political evolution, of a change in the nation's conservationist values and, most of all, of his proclivity for delegating decisions to trusted subordinates. During the two decades that Reagan was a New Dealer, liberals generally viewed development of water and energy resources as an unmitigated public good.

In a 1948 radio broadcast in which he was introduced by Reagan, Democratic Senate candidate Hubert Humphrey said the Tennessee Valley Authority had turned "a poor house into a treasure house" and went on to call for the establishment of other river-valley authorities modeled after the TVA.

"We must develop every river valley for all of our people," said Humphrey, expressing a familiar liberal sentiment of the time. Today it is James Watt who makes such statements, though he favors private rather than public development of these river valleys.

The prevailing opinion of Democratic liberalism, especially in the West, has changed profoundly since Reagan's New Deal years. By the time Reagan was elected governor in 1966, conservationists in the West were trying to preserve river valleys rather than develop them.

The Sun Belt population boom and the congestive impact of Los Angeles had produced a new breed of conservationists who were dedicated to saving the remnant of western wild rivers and the formidable reaches of western open space and wilderness from development either by public agency or private enterprise. Often the government, with its sweeping power of eminent domain, was considered as much an adversary as the timber and energy companies.

At the same time, environmental issues have usually been secondary for Reagan. His speeches of the 1960s yield few references to conservationist concerns of any kind, and it came as a surprise to him when his pro-development positions made him a target for environmental groups in the 1966 gubernatorial campaign.

During that campaign Reagan dealt with organized environmentalists defensively, trying to explain the ignorance reflected in his famous remark: "You know, a tree is a tree--how many more do you need to look at?"

In office, the novice governor displayed an adherence to the development ethic in remarks made about the proposed Redwood National Park at Cabinet meetings: "People seem to think that all redwoods that are not protected through a national park will disappear," Reagan said on one occasion.

On another he commented: "I'll be damned if I take away all this privately owned land for no reason. I owe that much to these people in these counties where the redwood park was being set aside . I wonder, has anybody ever asked the Sierra Club if they think these trees will grow forever?"

Reagan has a westerner's sense that "forever" is just around the next bend in the river. The West is so vast, so beautiful, so deceptively rugged that it is difficult even for those less optimistic than Reagan to believe that its fragile ecological system stands at the raw edge of existence.

Once, on a flight over Colorado, Reagan turned to me and, with a gesture toward the expanse of mountain wilderness below, remarked on the abundance of unspoiled land still available to Americans. But the plane, which had taken off through the smog hanging over Los Angeles, landed after passing through another layer of air pollution over Denver.

Despite his naivete and personal commitment to development, Reagan dealt with environmental issues successfully as governor of California. He did so primarily because he accepted many of the recommendations of his resources administrator, Norman (Ike) Livermore, a Lincolnesque lumberman who himself exemplified many of the contradictions of the Western experience. Livermore was a member of the Sierra Club and a genuine lover of wilderness.

Accepted both by environmental groups and by development interests as an honest broker, Livermore sought solutions which respected the claims of conservationists. Though he was inexperienced in government, Livermore had a gift for achieving acceptable political compromises. And unlike some officials to whom Reagan delegated responsibility, Livermore did not keep his knowledge to himself.

The Cabinet minutes of Reagan's first year in office reflect a step-by-step tutelage of the governor on the need for setting aside more privately owned land in the proposed Redwood National Park than either Reagan or the lumber companies wanted.

Under Livermore's prodding, Reagan as governor evolved into a balancer of environmental and development claims and tried to work with moderates in both camps. His rhetoric also began to reflect this balance.

"We do not have to choose between the environment and jobs," Reagan said in an April, 1973, speech. "We can set a common sense course between those who would cover the whole country with concrete in the name of progress and those who think you should not build a house unless it looks like a bird's nest or a rabbit hole."

Reagan's own five-room, 1,500-square-foot home at Rancho del Cielo is neither a rabbit hole nor a high rise. Rather it is a century-old Spanish-style adobe ranch house where rustic authenticity has been forced to yield to architectural reality. The tile roof, for instance, is fake. Reagan wanted real tile but found it was too heavy for the prevailing beams to support.

Reagan has done much of the repair and remodeling work on the house himself. He chops and hauls in the oak and madrona wood for the two fireplaces which are the sole source of heat. Reagan calls the ranch his "Shangri-La," and Nancy Reagan, who knows it is important to him, makes a show of liking it as well.

Reagan has always possessed the western impulse for acquiring land and a western penchant for making a tidy profit on it. He started in the days of the Wyman marriage with an eight-acre horse ranch in the then-pastoral area of Northridge, which since has been overrun by the relentless suburban sprawl of Los Angeles.

In 1951, shortly before he married Nancy Davis, Reagan sold his first ranch and bought two parcels of land totaling 290 acres in the rugged Santa Monica Mountains north of Los Angeles. He paid $85,000 for the property, which abutted 2,500 acres owned by Twentieth Century-Fox. The film company used the land for locations, often in western movies.

When Reagan became a candidate for governor in 1966, he decided to sell this land. "I could not have run for office unless I sold the ranch," he told me in 1968. But the sale was not actually consummated until a month after Reagan won the election. He sold the larger of the two parcels, 236 acres, to Twentieth Century-Fox, which also acquired an option to buy the remaining 54 acres.

Reagan received $1,931,000 from the film company, whose executives said they wanted to use the land for location purposes. In 1974, shortly before Reagan left the governorship, the State Parks and Recreation Department purchased all of Twentieth Century-Fox's land in the area for $4.8 million, paying less than one-fourth as much per acre as the film company had paid for the Reagan property.

Reagan's land dealings made him a millionaire. Twentieth Century-Fox never picked up its option on the remaining 54-acre parcel. In 1968 Reagan used those 54 acres as a down payment on a 778-acre ranch in Riverside County, south of Los Angeles, which he bought for $347,000.

Reagan said at the time he intended to develop the Riverside County property, known as Rancho California, as a working ranch. However, he couldn't obtain water or power service, and in December, 1976, Reagan sold the hilly, undeveloped land to James E. Wilson, a real estate broker and land developer, for $856,000 in a sale that was carefully kept quiet at the time. By this time, Reagan was already comfortably ensconced in Rancho del Cielo.

Nestled on a 2,250-foot-high mountaintop 29.5 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, Rancho del Cielo, once part of a huge Spanish land grant, was discovered for Reagan by his friend, millionaire investment counselor William A. Wilson, who owned land nearby. Wilson is one of the three trustees of The Ronald Reagan Trust, which manages Reagan's financial affairs, and the owner of a ranch in Mexico where the Reagans have vacationed for many years.

Reagan trusts Wilson's judgment and liked the ranch the first time he saw it. He paid $527,000 for the property in 1974, making a down payment of $90,000. The property has never been on the market since, but local real estate sources estimated in 1980 that it would sell for two to four times the purchase price--anywhere from $1 million to $2 million.

The probable market value of the land is not reflected in the property taxes which Reagan pays. Reagan qualifies for an immense property-tax break because his land is zoned "agricultural preserve" under a California law designed to prevent ranchers and farmers from being forced to sell their land to subdividers to pay their taxes. In return for an extremely low rate of taxation, the landowner pledges to keep his land in agricultural use.

When Reagan bought his Santa Barbara County property, it was a working cattle ranch. The owner, since deceased, had applied for and been granted an "agricultural preserve" designation three years earlier. Without going into business himself, Reagan preserved the tax status of the ranch by grazing only 22 head of cattle.

The financial benefits of this practice have been enormous. If the ranch were valued at a conservative market price of $1 million, Reagan would have paid $42,000 in taxes in 1979. His actual tax bill under the agricultural preserve designation was $862.

Reagan is a multimillionaire who does not need the tax break provided by Rancho del Cielo. But the ranch meets other needs. Reagan is a person who enjoys time spent alone in physical activity. He likes to work with his hands.

Assisted only by longtime employe Willard Barnett, once the driver of his gubernatorial limousine, Reagan rebuilt the adobe house. He knocked out walls, redesigned the kitchen, tore out a screen porch and replaced it with a sturdy family room. He ripped off the corrugated roof, replaced it with old fence boards and covered the boards with fake tile. He built a fence around his home out of old telephone poles and constructed a rock patio.

To build the patio, Reagan and Barnett dragged flat rocks into place, put cement in the crevices between them and sprayed the cement with water.

Surveying all this in 1976, when Reagan was on the verge of losing the Republican presidential nomination to Gerald Ford, reminded me of that haunting scene in "Death of a Salesman" when Biff Loman talks about how his dead father had enjoyed building a bathroom and a new porch and putting up the garage. "You know, Charley, there's more of him in that front stoop than in all the sales he ever made," Biff says.

Watching Reagan describe what he had done with genuine enthusiasm, rather than with the stage polish of his political talks, I thought then that there was more of Reagan in Rancho del Cielo than in most of his speeches. On this one warm Sunday in July, he seemed to care more about the way he had carved the tile to fit around a meandering stone fireplace than he had ever cared about the Panama Canal.

The ranch was an extension of Ronald Reagan. After he became president, he took every opportunity to go there, on some occasions ignoring advisers who thought it would have been politically wiser to remain in Washington.

Reagan was proud of his ranch, and it gave him emotional sustenance. He joked frequently about its isolation, once saying that he could cause consternation among the television cameramen who tried to grab peeks of him with long-lens cameras by suddenly doubling up and falling off his horse.

And he declined to turn Rancho del Cielo into a "Western White House" like Richard Nixon created at San Clemente. Reagan has too much of a mystical feeling about the land he owns to turn it into a presidential office complex.

When a reporter in 1980 asked Reagan why he would trade the tranquility of his ranch for the turmoil of Washington, he responded: "Well, maybe, because I want to see that it'll continue to be possible to have this kind of lifestyle in our country -- namely freedom. I see it endangered more and more every day. This reminds you of how great it is."

NEXT: The MX decision