Americans love the outdoors.

They love it so much that GOP pollsters Frank Luntz and Bob Castro found earlier this year that ''unlike virtually every other political issue raised in Washington or outside the Beltway, parks, playgrounds and open spaces know no boundaries.''But inside Washington, the ifs, whys and wherefores of the old argument - protecting the environment vs. fueling the economy - are hotter issues than ever. Again next year they are likely to constitute one of the sharpest debates among the presidential candidates and between the GOP-controlled Congress and the White House.

Americans tell pollsters of all stripes that they want the outdoors protected for future generations. Nine out of 10 Americans surveyed told Luntz and Castro that conservation programs help children learn new skills and teamwork; three out of four said they help prevent juvenile crime and that parents want more money spent on open spaces.

But then the agreement fades. Only 22 percent support subsidizing urban transit programs to limit air pollution. Only one out of four wants to spend money to encourage reuse of depleted industrial areas (brown fields). Four of 10 would spend money to buy more park land.

The Republican pollsters concluded: ''Congress can seize upon this moment to respond to the 'call of the wild' and deliver something tangible on conservation policy that resonates with deeply held American values. Little opposition will be heard from any quarter of the population . . . Parks, recreation and open space conservation are a recipe for victory.''

But when Congress adjourned for the year the week before Thanksgiving, bills to designate 9 million acres of wilderness in Utah, protect the Northern Rockies ecosystem and put the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge off limits to oil drilling all had failed to pass.

The Community Open Space Bonds bill, defined by the Sierra Club as intended to form a federal partnership with local communities to help plan for smart growth and fight urban sprawl, also went nowhere.

A highly touted bill to end commercial logging in national forests also faded into oblivion. Congress did appropriate money for the so-called land legacy program to help local, state and federal agencies preserve more open lands. But Congress appropriated only half of the $900 million the administration said was needed.

Vice President Al Gore is eager to campaign against Texas Gov. George W. Bush on environmental issues. ''Big polluters'' have been ''handing over big contributions'' to some presidential candidates, he says. He then suggests there might be a link between pollution problems in Texas and political contributions. Texas is the No. 1 state in America in rankings for four major air pollutants - carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and organic compounds - and No. 2 in particulates or soot.

The Bush campaign hotly denies a link.

Gore, however, is having his own environmental problems. Despite authorship of a polemical book on the environment, ''Earth in the Balance,'' and despite passionate cries for measures to combat global warming, Gore is having trouble getting the endorsements of the major environmental groups.

Friends of the Earth even endorsed his rival, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, arguing that he did more as a senator for the environment than Gore did when he was a senator.

Environmentalists now are most worried about the effect the recent death of Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., will have on environmental legislation. The long-time chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Chafee was widely considered a friend of the movement.

His successor is Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire, a conservative who briefly parted with the Republican Party to run for president but has since returned to the fold. He has introduced many bills strongly opposed by environmentalists and has vowed to block some of Clinton's forest initiatives.

One argument that Smith and many others make is that many Americans are not participating in the economic boom and the economy must still grow.

But environmentalists are heartened by other developments this fall:

GOP-sponsored bills to sell off relatively unpopular national parks and to open more federal land to resource recovery went nowhere. The Pew Charitable Trust plans to help finance buying 50 million acres for federal wildlife sanctuaries. And President Clinton said he would ban road building and logging on 40 million acres of national forests.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has hinted strongly that if Congress does not act to safeguard about a dozen endangered wilderness areas, Clinton might use the 1906 Antiquities Act to protect the lands from development.

Babbitt argues that Clinton is determined that one of his legacies will be that he protected and preserved more land than any president since Theodore Roosevelt.