GARDINER, MONT. -- It was a modern-day western showdown.

Granted, the face-off between Gene Hawkes and Eddie Francis was not as dramatic as Custer's Last Stand, which took place just the other side of the majestically beautiful Rocky Mountains. But it provided a vivid illustration of how America's wide-open spaces are shrinking with the influx of migrants, new life styles and new patterns of economic development.

Hawkes, a retired U.S. forester whose ancestors arrived in the West with the Mormon wagon trains, wants to be able to reach federally owned forests adjacent to Yellowstone National Park. He insisted that he has every right to cross Francis' land on an old "county road" that used to serve the now-deserted coal-mining town of Aldridge.

Francis, newly arrived from California as temporal head of a religious sect known as the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT), was equally adamant that the "county road," which cuts through his land, is a figment of Hawkes' imagination. Francis and his wife, Clare -- known to her followers as Ma -- bought the 12,500-acre Grand Teton Ranch in 1981.

"That road is still in the public records, Eddie," said Hawkes, president of a group campaigning for greater public access to 23 million acres of federal land in Montana. "The public has a right to use that road to reach its own land."

"That's pie in the sky, Gene," retorted Francis, as they stood together near the disputed dirt track in the shadow of the aspen-covered hills that rise on either side of the Yellowstone River. "That road hasn't been used for years, and you know it. When the town closed down, the road closed too."

Such disputes are increasingly common throughout the West, according to the U.S. Forest Service. In the past, hikers and sportsmen had little difficulty reaching over 200 million acres of public lands scattered across some of America's most scenic mountain areas. But access is becoming more difficult as the surrounding private land is snapped up by real estate companies and out-of-state corporations.

The past two decades have witnessed a rush to buy property that once belonged to homesteaders who settled Montana and other western states in the 19th century. A more recent trend has been the subdivision of these newly consolidated ranches into development tracts and plots for vacation homes.

"It makes me mad," said Hawkes, complaining about the orange "No Trespassing" signs that restrict access to mountains where he has been hiking and hunting all his life. "They allow you to look, but you can't touch."

Landowners such as Francis say Hawkes and his friends are really after unrestricted access to prime hunting grounds. But dude ranchers and outfitter guides in the Yellowstone area live off the fees they charge tourists and sportsmen for hunting rights.

"What the sportsmen want is to be able to get into a pickup truck, drive up into the mountains, hit an elk at 100 yards and take it back home with them. Pretty soon, there wouldn't be decent hunting for anyone else," said Francis whose church charges hunters $100 to $250 a day to hunt elk along the Yellowstone park boundary.

According to the Forest Service, the public is losing an average of one access trail a year into each federally owned forest in the western United States. The Public Lands Access Association, headed by Hawkes, claims that the public is denied access to about 13 million of the 23 million acres of public lands in eastern Montana.

Access rights vary widely from forest to forest. In the Gallatin National Forest, where Hawkes was chief ranger, there are posted access routes into the mountains every few miles. But the public wilderness areas in the beautiful Madison range are encircled by private ranches, making them virtually off-limits to the public.

"I feel closer to God when I'm up in those lands than I do when I am in church. I want other people to be able to enjoy that same feeling," said Bill Fairhurst, a former Marine pilot in Korea, flying his Cessna plane over a publicly owned forest with the evocative name of Cowboy Heaven.

Fairhurst is embroiled in a dispute with a New York company, Hunting World Inc., which has given notice that it intends to close the only easily accessible trail to Cowboy Heaven. Known locally as the Old Indian Trail, the path has been used by hunters, fishermen and backpackers for over two centuries.

For Montana residents, such encroachments on access to public lands are part of a gradual assault on tradition. But it also reflects the recurring conflict in the West between newcomers and old-timers: the white man and the Indian, the homesteader and the rancher, the farmer and the land speculator.

"In this part of the country, it's customary for the guy who's been in town for a week to frown at the guy who's just arrived," said Dick Pace, a historian in Virginia City, a 19th-century gold mining town famous for its shootouts between crooked sheriffs and ruthless vigilantes.

The access controversy is bound up with a larger debate about Montana's economic future. At issue is whether the state should continue to rely on faltering traditional industries such as mining and forestry or promote itself as a tourism center by conserving spectacular natural resources.

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a citizens' group concerned with protecting the environment around America's first national park, has supported local landowners in their disputes with public-access groups. It is lobbying for policies that would prevent the economic exploitation of millions of acres of land owned by the Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

"What this region has got to sell is its unique scenic beauty and wildlife," said Ed Lewis, executive director of the Yellowstone coalition. "The private landowners have, on the whole, proved to be excellent stewards of these natural resources."

As sportsmen and outdoorsmen square off against the environmentalists and dude ranchers, both sides are looking for ways to protect their rights. The confrontation at CUT's Royal Teton Ranch ended with both men invoking the Constitution and the legal system.

"The Constitution provides for the protection of minorities," Francis said. "This all goes back to what this country was founded on . . . . I agree that the public should be able to get to public lands, but they should not be able to get there any way they want."

"That road is a county road, but we'll probably have to go to court to prove it," Hawkes countered. "The best way to settle this is for me to walk up it, then you arrest me, and we'll have it out in court."