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Bob Schumann considers himself a conservative who usually votes Republican. But he is GOP Sen. Conrad Burns' worst political nightmare.

A retired attorney who looks like a cross between Ralph Lauren and Ernest Hemingway, Schumann is a foot soldier in the swelling ranks of newcomers on the march throughout the West. He fled the crowds and grime of northern New Jersey for the big sky and sparkling trout streams of Montana seven years ago and has never looked back. He is part of an army carrying the potent germ of change.Full of environmental fervor, Schumann built a lakeside cabin from logs harvested after a forest fire in Idaho - part of his commitment to practices that protect national forests from clear-cutting. He wants reforms in mining and grazing laws on federal lands and hopes relentless development in his new home, spectacular Flathead County, can be curbed.

"The old West, they just didn't pay much attention to what you cut down or dug up, because there was always somewhere else to cut things down or dig things up," Schumann said. "But this is the new West. They just can't do it that way anymore."

Environment-minded transplants like Schumann are arriving in droves throughout the West, transforming the social, economic - and political - landscape.

Their determination to protect the region's beauty has put them at odds with the loggers, miners and cowboys who have long made their living from the land. The newcomers are challenging the interests of the so-called extractive industries, which use resources like forests, grasslands, minerals and water - most on federal land - to produce goods ranging from beef to gold.

And therein lies the problem for Burns, a freshman senator who has championed the business interests against efforts by the Clinton administration to rein them in. He is facing a stiff challenge this November from Democrat Jack Mudd, an attorney who has assumed the environmentalists' mantle.

The race is widely seen as a barometer of how firmly the new order of the West is taking hold and whether Western voters, facing economic and social dislocations, will act to extend environmental protections or relax them out of fear of losing jobs.

In Montana, the wave of newcomers has arrived amid a slump in the natural-resources industries, and the standoff between the two forces is as dramatic as any in the West. The Mudd-Burns race, in short, comes at high noon in a highly polarized state.

Demographers mark 1980 as the start of the latest stampede west, although migration to Montana has picked up steam only in the past four years. In the 1980s, 2.3 million people poured into Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, making the Census Bureau's Mountain Division the nation's second-fastest-growing region behind the Pacific states. While Montana's overall population growth was a relatively low 1.6 percent between 1980 and 1990, it has taken off in the 1990s, growing by almost 3 percent from 1990 to 1992.

As newcomers have arrived, jobs in the retail, service, finance, insurance and real-estate sectors have exploded. Mining, logging and agricultural jobs have lost substantial ground.

And once-sleepy outposts like Missoula, Bozeman, Kalispell and Billings have swelled with transplants from urban California, the Midwest and the East. Where once the Marlboro Man reigned, "fax rangers" and "cappuccino cowboys" roam.

Burns appears to be vulnerable in the coming election. In a recent survey of senators' favorability ratings, 33 percent of Montanans said they approved of his performance, the lowest showing of 33 senators up for re-election in 1994.

But Burns is not without support. Despite its growth, Montana has only 822,000 people - most of whom expect to know their senator personally. And Burns, who drives a van with 170,000 miles on its odometer and a seat-back propped up with a 2-by-4, is an assiduous campaigner with a common touch and a crack constituency-service organization.

"Conrad Burns appeals to the fear in people here. And Jack Mudd appeals more to their hopes," said Marc Wilson, publisher and editor of the Bigfork Eagle.

Many who work in extraction industries in places like Montana have much to fear from environmental reforms that likely would curb their operations, cut their profits and trim their employment rolls even more deeply.

As a result, industry representatives have opposed new laws sought by environmentalists and often by the Clinton administration. And they have found an ardent defender in Burns.

It is on the issue of wilderness protection for huge tracts of Montana that Burns has taken his most visible stand in the environmental debate. Montana's Democratic representatives, Rep. Pat Williams and Sen. Max Baucus, have backed a bill that would set aside 1.7 million acres of Montana for designation as wilderness. But Burns has countered with what he calls the Montana Jobs Security and Lands Protection Act, under which 800,000 acres would be protected, as wilderness, from development. Major timber companies had a major role in writing the bill, and Burns' office referred early inquiries to industry representatives.

Since 1980, when the League of Conservation Voters began tracking congressional delegations by region, the average environmental score for lawmakers in the most urban Western region (the Pacific states including Alaska and Hawaii), drifted from 45 to 56 in 1993. Western politicians, apparently reflecting an increasingly green electorate, are getting greener themselves.

But those who believe they are watching the birth of a new West contend that demography will help sweep away the forces that are protecting the old West's political order.

"It will go in fits and starts," said California Rep. George Miller, who recently explored the new West's social, political and economic contours in a hearing in Salt Lake City. "But this transition is irreversible."