FORAKER RANCH, OKLA. -- Viewed from the crest of a low bluff, the terrain here looks much as it did to the earliest American pioneers: a vast and intimidating sea of grass, haunted by the wind and bounded only by the horizon.

In the pale light of an autumn dawn, the prairie is a landscape in burnished gold and burnt sienna, a subtle symphony of whispers. To the settlers, however, it was simply rocky and uninviting, suitable for the cow but not the plow.

And largely because of that, this stretch of northern Oklahoma has become, to conservationists and the National Park Service, one of the most coveted pieces of land in America.

More than 50 years after the idea first surfaced, the park service is seeking to create a national preserve of tallgrass prairie in Osage County, one of the last remaining large tracts of the grasslands that once blanketed the nation's midsection from Canada to Texas.

"All the rest of it's been plowed up," said William Penn Mott Jr., director of the park service.

Park officials envision a 100,000-acre preserve in Osage County, half of it owned by the federal government and the other half protected by "easements" that would be purchased from landowners. By some estimates, as many as 700,000 visitors a year might come to see the plains repopulated with buffalo, perhaps even to ride a Conestoga wagon through waves of grass.

"Fifty years from now, people could go there and sense what it was like for the pioneers, crossing the prairie to the West," Mott said. "That's what's exciting about it."

The effort has broad support from Oklahoma politicians and local officials eager to diversify an economy suffering from sluggish energy and agricultural markets. When legislation to create the preserve was introduced in the House and Senate last week, both Oklahoma senators and all six representatives signed on as cosponsors.

It also has won a qualified endorsement from the Reagan administration, which has been notably antipathetic to increasing the federal domain.

But the proposal has stirred up another kind of excitement in Osage County, among cattlemen, oil developers and especially among members of the Osage Indian tribe, which owns all the mineral rights of Osage County.

The result is an unusually fragile political compromise, more than three years in the making, that already appears to be fraying a bit at the edges.

The outcome carries significance beyond the Oklahoma prairie. There are still gaps in the national park system, but, like the tallgrass prairie, the best examples of some ecological systems now lie outside the federal estate.

"There are no more Yosemites," as Mott puts it. "Some new areas are not going to look like the old park standards."

Accommodating Private Interests

The question is how far those standards can be bent without being broken. At the heart of the controversy over the prairie preserve is whether the government can accommodate private interests and still preserve such lands "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people" -- or whether one side or the other will lose.

"It's an interesting test of whether negotiation is more fruitful than hard-driving activism at the grass-roots level," said Paul Pritchard, president of the National Parks and Conservation Association. "We're trying it here, but we don't know if it's the best model. It has been a very long process and disappointing."

In an effort to overcome the opposition that doomed a similar effort a decade ago in Kansas, supporters are proposing a preserve in Osage County, rather than a park. The designation means that grazing, mineral development and hunting -- activities forbidden in a park -- could continue.

Promoters also agreed to trim the size of the preserve (the initial study area was nearly 180,000 acres), and to buy land only from willing sellers. The proposed boundaries were carefully drawn to exclude most producing oil fields, even though the preserve would remain available for further drilling.

The changes haven't won over many opponents. "We're just beginning to roll our sleeves up," said Ralph Adkisson, a spokesman for the Osage Tribal Council, which has voted unanimously to oppose the preserve.

But they have had an effect in another direction. Some conservation groups, which have strongly supported the establishment of a prairie preserve, are having second thoughts about the Osage County project.

The most overt rebellion has come from the Sierra Club, which contends that the proposal has been watered down to the point that the preserve could become little more than a "cow and oil park." The club has launched a campaign for a bigger preserve, part of which would be managed as wilderness.

Other conservationists have expressed similar concerns, albeit more quietly. "There is some disagreement about whether we have enough," Pritchard said. "At this point, we're willing to stick by the negotiations, but if we have to start over, it will be because the strategy didn't work."

Members of Oklahoma's congressional delegation said they have done their best to please both sides, and the time for major changes has passed.

"I feel very strongly that the preserve ought to be accomplished," Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.) said. "But this proposal has been like the cat with nine lives -- it's been declared dead about eight times. I don't want to push my luck."

Said Rep. Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.), who represents the area: "If the environmentalists were to dig in their heels and insist on all or nothing, the delegation will not support the bill. If they change the bill, we'll kill it. The same thing will happen in Oklahoma as happened in Kansas."

Less Than 3 Percent Remains

Range management specialist Dick Whetsell reaches out and plucks a stem of grass. It's big bluestem, the towering species -- taller even than Whetsell, including boots and Stetson.

"This," he says admiringly, "is the redwood of the prairie."

Big bluestem once flourished, along with little bluestem, Indiangrass and switchgrass. It was the classic mix of the tallgrass prairie, which once stretched over 250 million acres from Indiana to Kansas. In the deep soils of Illinois, the grass grew tall enough to knot over a horse.

"A settler would not there spend 10 years in cutting down and burning the trees; on the very day of arrival, he could put his plough into the ground," explorer Louis Joliet wrote after a 1673 journey through the "treeless lands."

And so they did. According to the park service, less than 3 percent of the prairie that has been called "America's characteristic landscape" remains, much of it in patches along railroad rights-of-way or in old cemeteries. The rest has been converted into the nation's breadbasket, growing corn, wheat and soybeans.

Osage County's prairie is no less fertile, but the soil is rocky and shallow -- averaging less than 20 inches to bedrock. More than a century ago, such land was good for only one thing -- an Indian reservation -- and that's precisely what it became.

The land was bought for the Osage tribe, which had been forced out of its Missouri homeland and then out of southeastern Kansas by the westward press of white settlers.

Had the government realized there was oil beneath the tallgrass, the Osage might have ended up somewhere else. Instead, when the first oil strikes came at the turn of the century, the Indians -- and a good many white con artists -- became wealthy.

Today, relatively little of Osage County is actually owned by the Osage. The land was divided among tribal members in 1906, and most of it has since been sold. But the mineral rights were reserved for the Osage, allotted by "headright" according to tribal membership in 1906.

Osage Tribe Opposition

Allotments have been broken up over the generations and handed down through families, and the oil itself is beginning to play out, at least with current recovery methods. But a full headright is still worth about $8,000 a year in royalties, and for many older Osage it remains a primary source of income.

Therein lies the biggest obstacle for the prairie preserve. Among the Osage, the proposal is viewed as little more than a breach of the government's trust responsibility and another grab for what resources the tribe has left.

As currently proposed, the preserve would be carved from parts of three large ranches currently for sale in Osage County. But the mineral rights beneath those lands belong to the Osage. The Osage bitterly oppose any proposal that they believe will interfere with their ability to develop those rights.

"We're concerned that once the park gets in here, they have their condemnation law and they would take more and more land," said Stanlee Ann Mattingly, an Osage and activist against the preserve. Mattingly said tribal members are not comforted by promises that mineral development would be allowed to continue.

"We're just paranoid about the federal government," she said. "We have a long history of dealing with them."

According to Adkisson, the issue is not simply one of distrust but of legal responsibilities. "We can't sell that trust," he said. "They are not recognizing the rights of the Osage tribe."

Under the law, he notes, the Justice Department is bound to represent the Osage against landowners who attempt to restrict mineral development. If the landowner is the National Park Service, he asks, "How is Justice going to represent us both?"

The park service is sanguine about the oil wells. Indeed, officials are mulling ways to incorporate the "horsehead" rigs that dot the prairie into interpretive programs on the history of oil development.

But some conservationists acknowledge that they are uncomfortable with the current proposal, which would leave oil development under the regulatory jurisdiction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Sierra Club officials contend that BIA's less-rigorous environmental standards and lackadaisical enforcement have allowed oil developers to degrade the prairie with well brine and oil spills.

Ranchers' Reservations

Among some area ranchers, the proposal is viewed as a wasteful expenditure of federal money in an effort to bail out a few large landowners. "Those people helped inflate the price of land," said Dick Surber, a local rancher. "Oil prices failed and it's time to get out, and here they come now saying, 'Let the taxpayer bail us out.' "

Surber, who leases Osage-owned land inside the proposed boundary of the preserve, also fears loss of access to his land and government interference in his ranching operations. "I would end up a prisoner of the park service," he said.

Proponents contend that such fears are unfounded. "My family's been supportive of the tallgrass prairie since the beginning," said Steve Adams, whose family owns the 29,000-acre Foraker Ranch. Current proposals call for about half of the ranch to be purchased, he said, "but nobody has talked price. Nobody's offered a killing to me, that's all I can say."

Supporters contend that ranchers are unlikely to be displaced in areas outside the preserve's official boundaries, in part because the land must be grazed to remain prairie. Conservationists want to see buffalo and other native herbivores reestablished, but current proposals call for much of the range management to be done with cattle.

While the controversy rages on the range, the town of Pawhuska, population 4,700, waits anxiously for the outcome. Like dozens of rural towns that pinned their economy on agriculture or oil, Pawhuska is suffering. The streets, deserted at midday, are punctuated with boarded-up storefronts.

According to a report prepared for the Osage County Commission, the preserve could pump $12 million or more a year into the local economy. "It means jobs," said Charles Cummings, a retired Phillips Petroleum Co. official and devoted supporter of the preserve. "We have to think about tourism."

Critics contend that the statistics are inflated, although park officials are confident that Oklahoma's combination of lush prairie and a rich cowboy-and-Indian history can't lose.

But conservationists hint that they're prepared to hedge their bets.

In Kansas, where plans for a tallgrass park collapsed in the 1970s, state officials have recently expressed renewed interest in setting aside some part of the south-central Flint Hills as a prairie parkway.

"A lot of people want to see this area, want to ride the Conestoga wagons across the prairie," Pritchard said. "Oklahoma's got it, but they don't want anybody to see it. If Oklahoma doesn't move faster, we're going to work with others. Time is running short and we don't know how long we can keep this together."