"This is the biggest controversy here since the Civil War," Fred Huff said into the microphone. "And it's been almost as disastrous."

There is one crucial difference between the Civil War and the battle between the environmentalists and their neighbors who want to mine vermiculite here, however. The war lasted only four years. This one has gone for seven and there's no end in sight.

Two Department of the Interior officials, one a Carter appointee only 10 days in office, held a public hearing today on the issue. Or rather, a part of the issue. The complications of the vermiculite-versus-preservation was so far have caused half a dozen lawsuits, involved countless hours of public oratory, have lost and won elections, and turned neighbors into enemies while generating stacks of paper.

The debate took a slightly new twist today, turning to the issue of federal involvement in local affairs. One side is begging for the government to step in and protect what it sees as a national landmark over the shortsightedness of the Louisa County Board of Supervisors. The other side is demanding that the government stay out of local matters and let those geographically closest to the problem decide what to do.

Both sides perceive the issue as fundamental to the foundation of democracy.

"We've seen here today the death knell of our nation being sounded," intoned lawyer Samuel P. Highinbotham II, who represents several landowners who are opposed to government intervention.

"I trust the Department of the Interior more than the Board of Supervisors," said Eunice Fisher, 72, "The supervisors haven't shown any regard for our rights whatsoever."

The Department of the Interior soon must decide whether to accept a gift of scenic easements on more than 7,000 acres in the National Historic Landmark area of Green Springs, 98 miles southwest of Washington. But for every landowner who wants the federal government to have trusteeship over his or her property, there seems to be another one just as determined to keep it out.

In effect, accepting the easements would give the governments the right to "exercise the rights of a landowner," to prevent destruction of the land, or detract from its character. This means the government could take action - court action if necessary - to stop anything it judges would adversely affect the existing rural use of the area. The Ford administration tentatively agreed to accept the gift, but the new administration must take the final decision.

The problem is that Green Springs has great deposits of vermiculite, a flaky mineral used in insulation products, resting below its rolling green pastures. Two companies want to strip mine the land, offering the possibility of financial gain to those willing to sell their land or their mining rights.

Those who want to allow the two companies, the international conglomerate W.R. Grace & Co. and Virginia Vermiculite, Inc., to mine say that if Interior accepts the easements, it will stop not only the mining but complicate any other type of development by requiring evironmental impact studies on any proposal.

The preservationists regard the other side as "greedy" and "selfish," while the antigovernment landowners think their opponents are trying to run everyone's lives and "think like city people."

One hundred and fifty eight people signed up to speak at today's hearing, although not that many actually appeared. Some just stood up and said "All I want to say is the government should stay out of our lives," or "Some people think more about money than about future generations." Others had lawyers speak for them; some sent hand-written statements to have "inserted in the record."

Administrative Law Judge Franklin P. Michels, who normally hears coal mine safety cases, presided to keep order in the historic old Wills Chapel Meeting House where the hearing took place. Michels sat at a table covered with a blue and white tablecloth; outside the fields advertised spring and a breeze carried the scent of growing crops through the open windows.

Some people complained the hearing wasn't held at the county office building where there is air conditioning.

Historic Green Springs, Inc., the preservation group that had led the fight against the proposed mining and an earlier battle to prevent the state from building a prison in the area, presented an hour and a half of testimony. Their list of witnesses included a biologist who talked about the number of species found in the area, an art historian who discussed the historic value of the area and a former member of the Board of Supervisors who was defeated largely because of his support. The Conservation Council and the Garden Club of Virginia sent letters of support.

"There is nothing quite like this area in the entire country," said art historian William Hart, a tall, white-haired former professor from the University of Virginia who carried a gold handled cane. "It presents an unbroken series of works of high quality . . . a iving textbook of Virginia architecture lovingly cared for by its owners."

On the other hand, M. F. Peers said, "We sold our land to Grace in 1972. I've been called stupid, ignorant and unsophisticted for selling. The historical society just wants to boss and rule everyone else."

The Department of Interior holds easements on 1400 historic landmarks, according to Jerry Rogers of the archeology and historic preservation office.

That the fight over historic Green Springs has been vicious is apparent. Commonwealth's Attorney Stephen C. Harris called today's hearing "a sham," saying that it was obvious that new Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus was going to accept the easements. He argued that a local decision rezoning the land to allow the mining should be the ruling factor in the controversy - "in the spirit of a free democracy." Another lawyer was angry that he had not received replied to requests for information from the new administration.

Judge Michels, who made a special effort to allow anyone who would come in his or her lunch hour to speak before having to return, set a half hour break for lunch. "Nobody can get lunch in half an hour around here," muttered a local resident.

The visiting officials had arranged for a catered lunch from the only whistoric Green Springs people had their lunch catered from the same local restaurant; coincidentally the place. The two groups ate their crab salad under different trees, but took their ice tea from the same silver punch bowl. Everyone else went down the road to the store for tinned sausages and saltines.