As part of its ''new federalism,'' the Reagan administration is trying to turn more federal land in the West over to state and local communities. Generally, this intention is applauded in the land of the ''sagebrush rebellion.'' But what started as such a simple land deal in Rangely - a small town in northwest Colorado - has turned into a minor land war. The incident suggests that even with the best of intentions federal actions of this sort are likely to stir considerable controversy.
Rangely, an energy boom town, is hedged about by federal land. Acreage was needed to provide houses for new workers of the nearby Western Fuels coal mine. ''The town has a real need for low- and moderate-priced housing,'' explains one federal official.
As a result, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) agreed to sell 106 acres to the town this fall. In the past, similar deals have been consummated without problem under a provision in the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act. But in Rangely, things have not gone so smoothly.
Twelve Rangely landowners have sued BLM, claiming it is undercutting private land sales by selling the land at less than fair market value. (Because of the demand home sites have been selling for extremely high prices.) The plaintiffs claim that there are as many as 1,800 lots within the city limits. Besides the personal benefit, the plaintiffs say building on the lots would help the city by filling in ugly, vacant lots and saving the cost of extending municipal services into the new area.
The BLM has refuted this charge, saying that the market value of the land was carefully determined. Since the federal agency is in the process of preparing its response to the suit, BLM officials refuse to comment.
The bearing this case will have on similar land deals in the West remains to be seen. But federal land officials in Idaho and Montana have recently commented on the number of complaints they have received from landowners and those with conflicting interests regarding similar proposals.