Interior Secretary Donald Hodel was leaning against a wooden railing a quarter-mile into the forest, chatting amiably with a handful of park officials and curious tourists while waiting for the rest of his entourage to catch up.

It was the halfway point of a 31-day tour of the West, billed as a chance to get Hodel out to the "real world" for a firsthand look at the vast acreage his department manages.

"How far off the highway they gonna let you get?" asked one onlooker.

"I don't know," Hodel replied with a wry smile. "They don't trust me too far into the woods."

It was an accurate summary of Hodel's precarious position, six months into his tenure as the Reagan administration's third interior secretary. As the administration's former energy chief and erstwhile lieutenant to James G. Watt, his every step into the thicket of natural resource issues is monitored as closely as Glacier's rangers follow the movements of the park's famous grizzlies.

Environmentalists expect that he will hew to the policy path blazed by Watt, with its heavy emphasis on development and energy exploration -- and they fear that Hodel's smoother style will help him succeed where the acerbic Watt failed.

But the department's business constituency, which welcomed his move to Interior last February, now worries that he will deviate from the pro-development road in the interest of political accommodation. The oil industry, for example, was aghast last month when Hodel announced a tentative agreement with California officials that would sharply restrict offshore oil exploration through the end of the century.

Industry groups saw the proposed pact as a full-scale retreat from administration policy, and Hodel acknowledges that "it's not the agreement I would have drafted if I'd been free to draft the agreement."

But he shrugged off the industry's attacks. "They thought I would always be on the side of energy," he said. "The job makes the man. It's far more useful to do what I think is right for the country.

"For 20 years, the United States has not been able to explore areas that may have a lot of oil," he said. "This agreement would open the door -- it would be a foot in the door."

After five years of controversy and confrontation at Interior, Hodel says he would be content if the department gained that kind of a toehold on his watch.

"We don't have a coal-leasing program. The OCS [outer continental shelf leasing program] is under enormous attack in an effort to block it," he said. "It's all under assault. We have not done a good job of getting our house in order."

Conservationists argue that if the Interior Department's house is in disorder, Hodel must share part of the blame. As Watt's top deputy for 21 months, Hodel played a major role in moving such controversial initiatives as oil exploration in wilderness areas and million-acre auctions of the ocean floor.

In both background and ideology, the two men have much in common. Both are westerners -- a virtual prerequisite for the job of overseeing 350 million acres of public land that is heavily concentrated in the West.

Both share a strong commitment to rapid energy development, and both have a reputation for combativeness on environmental issues. As administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration a decade ago, Hodel once called conservationists "a small, arrogant faction . . . dedicated to bringing our society to a halt."

But whereas Watt carried his rhetoric into the interior secretary's office and reveled in being the department's lightning rod, Hodel seems determined to be its ground wire.

In that respect, he more closely resembles his immediate predecessor, William P. Clark, the trusted presidential trouble-shooter who shepherded the department for a year after Watt's departure. Like Clark, Hodel moved to improve relationships with Congress and opened his office door to conservation groups. In this month's 10-state swing through the West, conciliation was the credo at every stop.

In sessions with park employes, Hodel said he intended to rely more on recommendations from the field. Under Watt, Interior and state officials had often complained that field decisions were overturned or ignored at headquarters.

"I used to say a lot of awful things about Washington, D.C.," as BPA administrator, Hodel said. "Now I've been there 4 1/2 years and I can tell you that a lot of the things I said were right."

Similarly, Hodel deflected reporters' questions about specific department actions. "I don't have enough personal knowledge to make individual decisions unless there is some compelling reason I should intervene," he said. "The questions I get are unresolvable and somebody has to take the heat for them."

So far, however, Hodel has managed to escape the heat that engulfed Interior in the administration's first term, largely by acknowledging that the department's critics have a point.

Assaults on the Office of Surface Mining's enforcement record have subsided somewhat since Hodel conceded that the agency had shortcomings and put his undersecretary, Ann Dore McLaughlin, in charge of a special team to investigate.

The department's coal-leasing activities are no longer a focus of attack, chiefly because coal auctions have been suspended while department officials decide how to ensure that the government is getting fair-market value. Congressional investigators contend that some current policies, approved by then-Undersecretary Hodel, cost the government millions of dollars in coal revenue.

Wilderness issues are also off the front burner, resolved for the time being by a congressional compromise last year that added more than 8 million acres to the nation's wilderness system.

As a result, Hodel has been able to devote more of his time to what department officials say is his first priority: promoting exploration of the nation's oil and gas resources. A full week of his month-long tour was set aside for a series of public meetings in California on the tentative offshore agreement.

But unlike Watt, whose initiatives often took on the air of a crusade, Hodel said he intends only "to work toward a consensus" on the subject.

"I expect it to be fairly heated," he said. "But I'm not selling. I'm listening."

Snow-capped peaks jut skyward in the morning light, their flanks dotted with crystal-blue lakes in hanging valleys. As the small plane glides over Glacier's rugged terrain, Park Superintendent R.L. Haraden points out the proposed sites of a coal mine north of the Canadian border, an exploratory oil well near the park's west boundary, development in the Blackfoot Indian reservation to the east.

In the vernacular of the park service, these are "external threats" -- not within the park boundaries, but close enough to arouse concern about degraded water quality, air pollution, wildlife destruction and intrusions on scenery and serenity.

"The coal strip pit would take 1,000 feet off the hills," Haraden says. "There is the potential for the degradation of the Flathead River. The coal will have to be trucked."

Hodel is listening, but today he's selling as well. The "threats" outlined by Haraden are based on environmental analyses that assume that exploitable resources will be found. What if the government assessed the environmental impacts in two stages, Hodel suggested, one for the exploration phase and one for development?

Such a change could have far-reaching impacts on oil and mineral exploration. Exploratory drilling and seismic tests generally have minimal impacts on the environment; most opposition stems from the potential impacts of developing a major discovery.

Haraden isn't buying. "Is it fair to the developer to let him spend $3 million on a field, and then say, 'Sorry, the environmental risks are too high' ? " he counters.

Undaunted, Hodel returns to the theme in a news conference, telling reporters that the proposed Canadian mine "is not a threat if no coal mining is to be done in the foreseeable future . . . . Not every threat has an impact. We have got to be conscious of the difference between threat, potential threat and impact."

It is a subtle suggestion that mineral exploration might coexist benignly with a national park. The idea draws no consensus, but neither does it raise any red flags.