WHAT VALUE would you put on the sight of the moon rising above a mountain peak?

How about a view of waves breaking on a rock-bound coast? Would your valuation change if you observed these sights from the vantage point of a mineral developer rather than as a camper in a national park? Which assessment should be given greater weight? If you find these questions difficult to answer, you will probably conclude, along with the Interior Department, that the benefit of cost- benefit analysis may often be less than its cost.

The question of the value of a view was recently addressed, at least indirectly, by the Interior Department in its decision not to issue a list of especially beautiful vistas observable from national parks. The idea of such a list originated in an Environmental Protection Agency regulation with the thought that it would encourage -- but not require -- states to take account of the possibility of impairing such scenic resources when considering permits for industrial development or mining.

A list of 173 vistas seen from 43 parks was duly compiled by the National Park Service. But power companies, mining and industrial concerns didn't like the idea of the list's being issued even on an advisory basis. They were especially concerned in states such as Utah, where vistas can extend for more than 200 miles, that the list might be used to block industrial development in major parts of the state. Finally, the administration, citing concern over state "resentment" and possible litigation, decided to junk the list entirely.

One small hurdle, however, lay in the path of this decision. It was a "regulatory impact analysis" ordered by former Interior secretary James Watt that included a comparison of the costs and benefits of issuing the list. Cost-benefit analysis, of course, is the technique much relied upon by administration policy- makers to free business and the public from heavy- handed federal regulation. The only trouble is that when Interior officials applied the technique to the scenic vista list, the result came out positive. That is, the benefits of the list were found to exceed its costs.

Interior officials, however, had no trouble in disposing of this troublesome analysis. As it turned out, in the words of one official, "that kind of quantification in dollar amounts was not the key issue." Indeed. You might conclude from this whole episode that the beauties of cost-benefit analysis are often in the eye of the beholder.