At first sight, "The Glade" in Garrett County seems nothing more than a soggy stretch of pastureland -- picturesque but not very valuable or controversial.

A tractor pokes along the winding, two-lane Rock Lodge Road. Cattle-crossing signs mark the shoulder. Ponds glitter in the late-day sun.

To owner Kenneth Buckel, the 470-acre bog is a profitable addition to his business. Using front-end loaders, Garrett County Processing and Packaging Corp. extracts the peat moss from "The Glade" and adjoining bogs and sells it as a soil conditioner. The company is the only one of its kind in Maryland.

To James Dougherty of the Sierra Club, the bog is something else again. He calls it "an 18,000-year-old national treasure and an ecological diamond" that should not be disturbed.

Last month, the Potomac chapter of the Sierra Club, which includes 10,000 members in Maryland, Delaware and the District, went to court to prove the value of the pastureland. The group filed suit in U.S. District Court to prevent Buckel's company from mining the tract it purchased last year, alleging that federal laws protecting wetlands and water quality have been violated.

The Sierra Club also sued in Garrett County Circuit Court to challenge the peat company's use of an exemption in the state mining laws. The exemption waives mining permits if the mined substance weighs less than 500 tons per acre. The question, Dougherty said, is whether the moss should be considered by its wet weight, which is naturally much heavier than its dry weight.

The case -- and a study of the bog's historical potential -- are in only the most preliminary stages. But already the dispute has drawn out a certain hostility in far western Garrett County, where residents traditionally do not take kindly to intervention by strangers.

"Our county commissioners fully support the peat company," said Tom Jones, Garrett County's economic development director. "They've been a longtime, well-established small employer in the area. They have not degraded the environment in any way at all. I don't know of anyone in the county who has a problem with them. It's all outside opposition."

The case touches on other sore points as well, such as a person's right to make a living with his property and the question of exactly what constitutes environmental damage. Buckel, for instance, prefers to use the word "harvesting" instead of "mining" to describe his four-person operation.

To Sierra Club officials, the bog's uniqueness and its historical significance are the most important issues.

The glade is described as one of the three oldest peat bogs east of the Mississippi River, Dougherty said. It surely represents, he said, the southernmost limit of the prehistoric formations that are more commonly found in New York state.

Peat, which is formed from decomposed plants, creates an oxygen-free environment with special preservative properties. "You can tell which pollens existed thousands of years ago," Dougherty said.

The Sierra Club has kept an eye on the bog since Buckel and his shareholders bought it at an estate auction last year for $270,000. The company outbid the Nature Conservancy, a private organization that buys land with to protect it.

The Sierra Club is seeking an injunction to halt Buckel's operation. In the meantime, he continues to work the area, contending that he is not harming the bog or its ecological treasures.

"No one has given us a stop-work order," Buckel said. "We don't disturb the earth anyway. We scoop the peat off the top. How would they find all those fossils that are supposedly down there if we didn't remove the peat first?

"We're an honest, straightforward company that's been in operation for 22 years," he said. "Frankly, I'm 61 years old and if the Sierra Club thinks that land is so valuable, then they can buy me out and I'll just retire."

Sierra Club officials say they have no intention of dropping their suits.

"We have a nice little war chest," said Donald Goldbloom, conservation chairman of the Potomac chapter. "We'll keep pursuing it.

"The fact is, we don't want this bog to be ruined," he said. "I know they think they're making an honest living, but it comes down to a real conflict of values."