Len Wilbur points with pride to the fresh deer tracks pressed in the soft soil under a tall stand of white pines in Seneca Creek State Park. Fourteen years ago, Wilbur, the park's assistant superintendent, planted the trees to create a wilderness habitat, and sometimes when the air is still, he has spotted herds of up to 35 white-tailed deer foraging in the Montgomery County park.

"This is a major deer run here," he said. "You can see from the way the hooves skidded in the mud."

The peaceful setting is deceptive, for only a half-mile away, on the park's outskirts, bulldozers are churning up the red, iron oxide-rich earth, clearing the way for the Great Seneca Highway. The $33 million highway is scheduled to slice through Wilbur's grove of pines and shuttle up to 40,000 cars a day between the fast-growing subdivisions of Germantown and the planned employment centers west of Gaithersburg.

For more than 15 years, Montgomery County officials have regarded the highway as the pivotal link in the development of the upper county, and in recent years they have begun construction of segments of the road leading to the 6,000-acre park. For almost as long, a coalition of environmentalists and local citizens groups has fought the highway, arguing that it will do unalterable damage to one of the largest unbroken areas of wilderness in the county.

In many ways, the battle is a replay of the emotional development fights of the 1960s, when major highway projects such as the North Central Freeway and the Outer Beltway were quashed by concerns over costs, pollution and neighborhood disruption. But this time the antihighway forces have found a powerful and unlikely ally: the federal government.

For the last 26 months, the National Park Service has kept the bulldozers off park land, saying the county's proposed route would cause excessive damage to the environment. Federal approval is necessary for the highway because it involves park land paid for by federal funds, and Park Service officials say that Montgomery County officials have long been aware of their opposition to the highway's proposed route -- and ignored it.

County officials contend that the highway route was agreed upon in a master plan 15 years ago -- before much of the land involved was a part of Seneca Creek State Park.

"The whole process they're putting us through is wrong," said county Transportation Director Robert McGarry. "At the last minute, [for the federal government] to say we almost never approve of an alignment through the park, is called jerking around local government by big brother fed."

There is one given in the Great Seneca Highway debate. Everyone involved believes that major road improvements are critically needed and will require use of some park land.

But while the county is seeking to have the road slice through wooded park land for almost a mile where no roads now exist, federal officials prefer using one of two existing roads through the park.

In the process, the bitter dispute has amounted to a case study of the planning process gone awry in a county known for its sophisticated approach to land use questions.

According to county officials, the highway is the linchpin of $500 million worth of planned transportation improvements in the fast-growing Germantown-Gaithersburg corridor.

An abundance of growth hangs in the balance.

For 15 years, planners have carefully charted area growth around the route. Nearly half of the 26,600 additional homes and one-quarter of the more than 25,000 new jobs planned in the Germantown-Gaithersburg area hinge on the road's completion in order to comply with the county's adequate public facilities ordinance.

Since 1979, more than 22,000 houses have been approved for construction in the Gaithersburg-Germantown area, and more than 12,000 houses have been built there with only minimal improvements to roads paralleling I-270. Of those homes, planners estimate that more than 4,000 are dependent on the highway, which would begin at Middlebrook Road in Germantown and end at Rte. 28 just north of Shady Grove Road.

Seneca Creek Park has a 90-acre lake and 500 acres of picnic areas and campgrounds and draws more than 100,000 visitors a year. But environmentalists say its greatest value lies in its vast wildlife refuge, which, they contend, would be severely and irreparably damaged by the highway.

"If this happens, then basically you are declaring open season on any open space along the I-270 corridor," said Richard J. de Seve, president of the Maryland Conservation Council. "Basically, we are drawing the line here."

The state began buying land for the park in 1951, and in the mid-1970s it started receiving federal assistance. The state has spent $8.6 million in federal money to buy the land there, according to the Park Service.

The county transportation department contends that a chronology of letters and meetings dating to 1971 shows that state and federal park officials had acknowledged the existence of the 1971 master plan road alignment through the park.

"When the land was bought for the state park, it was bought with full knowledge and full indication by us that the master plan called for another road through the park," said Planning Board Chairman Norman L. Christeller.

In one key 1978 meeting, the county said it was assured by state officials that the use of federal funds to buy park land would not interfere with the highway's construction.

Michael Gordon, who has been coordinating the project for the Park Service, called the chronology "irrelevant."

"There was no approval by the Federal Highway Administration or any agency of this department," he said.

The county was informed as early as 1977 that it would have to comply with tough federal regulations to build the road, and county officials knew as early as 1982 that the Interior Department preferred other routes, according to correspondence.

The Maryland Natural Resources Department informed the county of its preference for other routes in an April 1981 letter. The County Council had approved funding for the road's construction in 1979.

In 1983, the federal Environmental Protection Agency criticized the Montgomery County Council for approving highway funding for "the express reason" of enabling the Montgomery County Planning Board to approve development.

The action, it noted, had "influenced development patterns which influenced population projections which ultimately influenced traffic projections justifying the road."

The agency said it believed that the county's procedure was a violation of federal regulations.

Area residents have been divided on the issue almost along geographical lines. Those living north of the park in Germantown generally support the county's proposed route, while those south are mostly opposed, said George F. Sauer, president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation.

"Some people see it just as a matter of alleviating traffic," said Germantown Citizens Association President Gary Isabelle. "But if we are going to give any credibility to our master plans, then you have to support the master plan route."

Edwin V. Dutra, a member of the Quince Orchard Valley Citizens Association, disagrees. "Basically, someone drew a line in the late '60s [and] started approving housing developments. They're locked into it now whether it's the best alignment or not."

With so much development riding on the county route, highway opponents have repeatedly questioned the county's ability to study other alternatives objectively.

Of the 13 other routes considered in the draft environmental impact statement in 1983, the county master plan route was identified as one of the most costly and one that would consume the most park land and cross more streams and wetlands than any of the routes using Riffleford or Clopper roads, which both run through the park.

However, the master plan route, county transportation officials said, would provide the highest level of traffic relief on Rtes. I-270, 28 and 355.

At one point, there appeared to be a breakthrough, when county officials persuaded the state Natural Resources Department to drop its opposition to the route in the spring of 1984. In return, the county agreed to spend $3 million on berms, shrubs and fencing to mitigate the highway's impacts in the park.

But in July, the U.S. Department of the Interior rejected the route in favor of alternatives using Riffleford or Clopper roads.

The Park Service, which initially supported widening Clopper Road, has switched its attention and is studying eight options on Riffleford Road.

"They have every approval except the one they really need," one federal official said of the county's plan. "We still think that's the worst possible alignment."

While officials have been negotiating over the route, the $3.1 million worth of construction of the highway segments outside Seneca Creek Park has come under increasing criticism from residents. Two citizens groups and environmentalists filed suit to halt the work last summer, but a federal judge in Baltimore ruled last month that they would have to wait to press the suit until the federal government makes a decision on the route.

The county contends in court papers that the segments are actually "access roads" to the subdivisions and would be built regardless of the highway's route. But lawyers for the citizens groups note that developers are grading 150-foot rights of way and in some cases building two-lane roads to federal highway standards.

The Montgomery County Civic Federation, which represents 60 citizens groups, "strongly urged" the county last April to halt work, noting "significant public concern" over what it said was either an attempt to "bulldoze the environmental issue" or "extremely poor judgment."

For Wilbur at least, the issue is not just the highway but the change that has come to a once rural county.

Riding down a nearby road, recalling fields where cows once roamed and corn stood head high, Wilbur glanced at the rows of new, vinyl-sided town houses and sighed, "Sometimes, I get the feeling I was born too late."