Before he leaves office in a few weeks, Interior Secretary William Clark has an opportunity to end on a high note. A pending decision involves both the preservation of public lands and the protection of an endangered species. Under James Watt, who liked parking lots more than parks, land acquisition programs were zero funded. He oversaw major cuts in the endangered species programs. In the first four Reagan years, fewer than 18 species a year had been listed as endangered each year. In the previous seven years, 39 were listed each year.

Clark, who is not a miracle worker and thus unable to get the nation to forget Watt, at least spent his 18 months at Interior with an open mind. The decision before him now is whether an endangered bird -- the masked bobwhite quail -- is worth saving and then whether a tract of 118,694 acres of land in Arizona is worth buying as a habitat for the quail to be saved on.

Bobwhite quails and Arizona land deals may not be the news story of the year -- or the month or week -- but the history behind the pending decision reveals how politically complicated the simplest of environmental issues can become. More than 80 years, and probably that many tons of memos, have passed since President Theodore Roosevelt created the first national wildlife refuge when he cruised by Pelican Island on Indian River in Florida and ordered that the government buy it. It was bought.

The quails of Arizona have not been as blessed as the pelicans of Florida. After hearings in which every objection to buying the site was heard, Congress approved $9 million for the property last November. This federal involvement was consistent with earlier Interior Department acquisitions to protect endangered birds: a refuge in Texas to help in the recovery of the whooping crane, a refuge in Mississippi to bring back the sandhill crane, among many others.

The wipeout of the masked bobwhite quail began in the 1880s when cattlemen turned loose their herds into the grasslands of Arizona. The cattle ate or trampled the nesting areas of the birds. In less than 20 years, the last quail was seen in Arizona. A few survived in Mexico, which prevented a total decimation.

In the 1940s, conservationists worked for a comeback. More than 200 quails were set loose in Arizona's Altar Valley. The birds, up against the cattle, didn't make it. In 1966, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center began a captive propagation project with some birds caught in Sonora, Mexico. The recovery plan had some successes, but federal officials concluded that a protected habitat was needed. In other words, the birds were doing well in their pens in Maryland, but they were meant by nature for the wild.

The search for land was narrowed in the mid-1970s to a site in Arizona. The 118,694 acres of the Buenos Aires ranch near Tucson could have been purchased in 1981 for less than $7 million, except that Watt had ordered a halt to land acquisitions. That mistake, if Clark approves of the current congressionally sanctioned $9 million deal, will cost the government $2 million.

Although the effort to save the quails has been called controversial in Arizona, it is minor compared with some of the volcanic fights elsewhere in the country in the politics of land use. Both of Arizona's senators, the governor, the congressman (Morris Udall) in whose district the ranch is located, the director of the state game and fish department, the state land commission, and both state and national Audubon societies support the acquisition.

Opponents of the project have been led by Rep. Eldon Rudd, an Arizona Republican. The land is not in his district, but in his political sight-line, which sees the $9 million as "an unconscionable sum of the taxpayers' money." Rudd, not so reckless as to repeat the agin'-the-government charge that all this is bird-doggle, has argued that "other, less costly" sites must exist.

They don't. This is where the issue turns. After decades of research by accountable conservationists, this particular site -- with its water and grasslands -- is seen as the last outpost of hope for saving the quail.

The history of protecting endangered species is marked by prolonged political fights. Yet, after the rights of the animals are respected, everyone agrees that it is worthwhile that such once nearly extinct species as the bald eagle, manatee, California condor, grizzly bear and peregrine falcon are on the way to thriving again.

Some 220 birds are currently listed under the Endangered Species Act, with another 1,000 said to be eligible for listing. Up against all that pending doom, saving one kind of quail and one tract of land seems small. It is. Small victories are all that remain. The big ones are extinct.