For much of its 2,030-mile stretch it is a pinched slice of boot-packed earth graced by arching groves of hemlock, swaying stands of yellow birch, and bear-clawed clusters of beech. It twists and turns past wind-buffeted cornices and sluggish brooks -- through the stormy bunkers of America's battleground for independence, past the rumpled hills of Thoreau country, and on to pristine outposts such as Chimney Rock, Va., and Keys Gap, W.Va.

The Appalachian Trail is a retreat for more than 4 million nature-hungry people each year. Yet even this, the world's most famous footpath, isn't without its squabbles.

Small plumes of protest have erupted here and there over federal efforts to buy up land and permanently protect the trail. The hubbub surrounds the National Park Service's efforts to widen the corridor and relocate it in areas threatened by development. A few spirited landowners affected by the project are battling what they see as a land-grabbing National Park Service. p

The controversy has particularly rocked this steeple-dotted town, through which the corridor has run with the blessing of townsfolk for more than half a century on its wooded journed from Mt. Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in Georgia.

"It's just one of those things that keeps coming back like a bad dream," James Campion, chairman of the board of selectmen, observed.

The Appalachian Trail protection project here is a tale of big government and small landowners, of wilderness ethics and stubborn attachment to the land. aThe battle symbolizes some of the fruits and frustrations the federal government and hiking groups have encountered in trying to permanently protect "one of the seven wonders of the outdoorsman's world."

And now the project might also become a Park Service tale of the survival of the fittest, as the Reagan administration casts its money-conscious eyes around for expendable projects.

The Appalachian Trail, one of the more valuable recreation areas in the congested East, is within a day's drive of about half the nation's population. cThe serpentine footpath was launched in 1921 by Benton MacKaye, a forestor-philosopher who saw the need for a recreational outlet for people living in the "chain of smoky beehive cities" along the eastern seaboard. Crews of hikers and naturalists finished marking off the footpath 16 years later.

In 1968, Congress decided to protect the trail permanently, authorizing $5 million to preserve a 200-foot-wide corridor along unprotected sections of the trail. But overuse and sprawling development continued to erode the trail's pristine character. By the mid-1970s, more than 200 miles of the footpath had been forced onto roadways, as property owners objected to having the trail run through their land and hiking clubs rerouted sections of the trail to avoid developer's bulldozers. So in 1978 Congress empowered the Park Service to spend a total of $90 million to widen the belt to 1,000 feet where possible.

Some $35 million of the overall $90 million has been appropriated to date. An additional $20 million was earmarked in the Carter administration's budget for 1982, but Reagan's proposed budget would wipe out most of that, except probably enough to cover administrative costs. In addition, several million dollars in 1981 monies might be rescinded, Park Service officials say.

Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt recently put a moratorium on federal land acquisitions. Without additional funding -- and permission -- to buy more land to link together already-purchased parcels, Park Service officials say, much of the $35 million doled out so far will have been spent in vain.

The idea of a buffer was twofold: to protect hikers from boisterous civilization and to insulate civilization from growing legions of backpack-laden hikers. The project has resulted in what Park Service officials consider one of the most complicated acquisition projects the agency ever has undertaken. Generally, Congress outlines the land to be purchased when a national park is established. But with the Appalachian Trail, boundaries are being mapped plot by plot.

No small task, considering that the trail tiptoes across more than 1,200 individual properties -- each requiring sometimes painstaking negotiation. It also snakes through 14 states, eight national forests, two national parks and numerous state parks. Already the federal agency has talked titles with everyone from Buddhists in New York to maple sugarers in New Hampshire. The project originally was scheduled to have been completed by this fall.

To be sure, most of the land negotiations have been pleasant. Indeed, Park Service officials think the cooperation from federal, state and local officials, as well as private groups, could serve as a model for future preservation projects. Maintenance of the trail will fall into the hands of some 60-odd hiking groups strung out along the trail, the way it has since its inception -- a low-cost, small-is-beautiful approach.

So far the Park Service has acquired about one-third of the 400 miles it has to protect. Another 400 miles eventually is to be protected by the states and National Forest Service. What opposition there has been from landowners has subsidized somewhat since 1979, when the Park Service first began marking off the wilderness corridor. Yet small pockets of resistance -- such as in the Cumberland Valley area of Pennsylvania -- still exist.

And then there is Hanover. Few expected any prolonged eruption in this conservation-minded community. After all, the town has not one but at least two conservation commissions (one public, one private). Through restrictive zoning laws it also has regulated growth.

In addition, members of the Dartmouth Outing Club have been hoofing and maintaining trails in the area for dozens of years. But hiking trails are one thing. Permanent federally-owned corridors are another.

"It's like running an Interstate through the middle of a community. Nobody is ever happy with any of the routes -- that's just the nature of the game," said the board of selectman's Campion, referring to alternate corridors that have been discussed between Park Service officials and angry landowners.

As it is elsewhere, the Park Service is trying to relocate the trail away from the pavement and closer to the poplars. Now the trail enters Hanover from the west, across the Connecticut River. It runs right down the main street, with its red-brick storefronts, and eventually coils northeastward up the state.

But the state, aided by the Dartmouth Outing Club, mapped a new route in the early 1970s. The new trail still would be near the downtown area, but on a more wooded route. The amount of trail on roadways, now about 2.8 miles, would be cut about in half. Along the way, however, the new corridor skirts across 18 private properties.

Battle lines have been drawn. Some townspeople and landowners are greeting the project the way they would a long-lost cousin. A few others stubbornly refuse to give up their land. Over the past two years innuendo and alternate routes have been battled back and forth like shuttlecocks.

"It [the project] is a really good way to preserve the land," Carol Stout, one of three landowners in the area who has sold property to the Park Service, said. "Ever since we took the land away from the Indians, we've had a false notion about property. The wilderness should be more accessible, especially to people living in the cities."

Allen King, chairman of the Hanover Conservation Commission, minimizes the amount of opposition to the project. And the few "dissidents" there are, he says, are more concerned about themselves than the long-term benefit of a trail.

Wrong, say Kevin Cunningham and David Cioffi, two of the most feisty (and, backers would say, almost the only) opponents of the trail. Both contend they aren't against the hiking path. They just don't want it to bisect their families' property. It's all right, they say, to route it along the edge of their land -- but not through the middle.

The Appalachian Trail is dependent on the friendship of the community it goes through," said Cunningham. "That's been its history. But it is never going to hang onto friendship the way it is going."

Both Cunningham and Ciofi charge that the Park Service didn't fully explore alternate routes or involve the landowners in early planning stages. They also contend that Dartmouth College, the largest landowner in the area, steered the trail to where it would least affect its own holdings -- all contentions trail planners stoutly deny. In late 1979 the men went so far as to map their own route through the area. But Park Service officials and local planners rejected it, arguing that it stepped on even more property owners' toes and wasn't as pristine a corridor.

Berton Hewes is even more obstinate about the trail. The retired farmer lives with his son, Gerald, and owns about 100 acres of wood and pasture land nearby, a slice of which the Park Service hopes to buy.

"I think this country has learned quite a lot from Hitler," groused Gerald, leaning over a rusted Caterpillar tractor. "If we're stronger than you are, then we'll take it.

"They said they wanted a little corner of the land. You know how much that little corner is? Thirty-five acres."

Berton leaned forward. "That's the whole story -- they want my land," he said. "I was brought up when people was free. They owned their own property. They had rights. If they didn't want to sell it, they didn't have to."

Ultimately, the Park Service holds the final trump card -- condemnation, an option trail planners say they have bent over backward to avoid all along. "We are going to continue to try to work something out -- we don't want to go to court," Steven Golden, the federal agency's Boston-based regional coordinator for the project, said.

Only 7 percent of the properties along the trail have been acquired through condemnation so far, compared with an average of 15 percent in other land acquisitions.

But why, opponents insist, does the government have to snap up a several-hundred-foot strip of their land to protect something that has existed for years?

The answer, hikers are inclined to reply, lies in the woods itself. On a recent brisk afternoon, wool-hatted Roger Sternberg hoisted his heavy hiking boot over a snowcapped log and trudged on up the side of Moose Mountain. Ahead, Thomas Linell, a member of the local conservation commission, was bulling through eight inches of fresh snow on cross-country skis, spouting puffs of steam into a chill air. Fingers of sunlight poked through the snow-cloaked groves of hemlock. Brittle trees creaked with each nudge from a gentle wind.

Like an alert Labrador retriever, Roger abruptly stopped and pointed through a thicket of ash, maple and birch. "See, over there, I think those are bear claw marks," he said, gesturing toward a stumpish beech tree where a hungry mammal had tried for a dinner of beech nuts.

A few minutes later we emerged from the wood-shrouded trail and onto the 2,200-foot summit of Moose Mountain.

Roger stared out over the pasture-quilted landscape and beyond, where the bristly forests capping Shaker Mountain to the southeast and Mt. Kearsarge to the southwest brush gently against a hazy New Hampshire horizon.

"This," Roger said, swinging his arm in a wide arc, "is what the nitty-gritty protection project is all about."