With rapid development threatening forests, farmland and historic sites from Manassas battlefields to Alexandria homes, environmentalists and preservationists across Virginia are urging the state to create a $40 million-a-year land conservation fund to help buy endangered properties.

The effort, spearheaded by the Richmond-based Conservation Land Coalition, is aimed at stemming what the group says is the loss "at an alarming rate" of Virginia's open spaces, natural areas and historic sites. Although the proposed outlay would fall far short of what is needed, preservations say, it would enable Virginia to reap federal matching funds and provide a starting point for broader conservation.

"We're one of only three states on the Eastern Seaboard that does not have dedicated funding for land conservation," said Michael Lipford, Virginia director of the Nature Conservancy and one of the leaders of the Conservation Land Coalition. "This is long overdue in Virginia. Land conservation has been neglected for so many years that we feel strongly it's a priority this year."

Maryland appropriates $70 million a year to protect land, North Carolina spends $60 million, and New Jersey tops them both with $180 million.

The coalition wants Gov. James S. Gilmore III to include an initial $40 million for the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation when he issues his budget in December. The General Assembly reconstituted the foundation last year but gave it only a one-time allocation of $1.75 million, instead of the $40 million that a subcommittee had recommended.

Rather than using taxpayers' money to buy endangered lands, Gilmore favors encouraging landowners to sign conservation easements to protect the forests, farmland and open spaces from development.

"Easements are a good thing," said Joseph F. Johnston Jr., a board member of the Preservation Alliance of Virginia, an umbrella organization of local historical societies and civic groups. "But we're concerned that easements alone are not enough to do the job when development pressures get intense."

"A lot of other states are doing a lot better than Virginia is in protecting open space and land," said Johnston, an Alexandria resident.

"We feel like we're behind the curve," he said, "and we need to catch up."

Much of the pressure on natural areas stems from population growth, the Conservation Land Coalition says.

Virginia's population has increased by 50 percent since 1970, making the state now the 12th most populous in the nation, and it is expected to add another 1.5 million people by 2025.

Meanwhile, Virginia has lost nearly 450,000 acres of prime farmland since 1987--about 5 percent of the state's total--and forests have been disappearing at a rate of 26,000 acres a year.

Since Colonial times, 42 percent of Virginia's wetlands have been lost, including 2,500 acres a year in Virginia's portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed during the 1980s, the coalition says.

In Fairfax County, the Park Authority wants to acquire an additional 6,800 acres of park land at an estimated cost of $68 million.

"We just don't have enough funds locally to conserve all the land we would like to," said Walter Alcom of the Fairfax County Planning Commission.

Statewide, he said, the proposed $40 million fund would amount to "a little more than a drop in the bucket."

Some of the most pressing needs involve Virginia's plentiful historic sites, including Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields and properties such as Mount Vernon, Ferry Farm and Monticello that are associated with America's Founding Fathers. Protecting the battlefields alone would cost more than $1 billion, the coalition estimates.

According to the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites, Virginia has more than 100 "endangered sites" of historical importance, far more than any other state.

Among them are lands associated with the first and second battles of Bull Run in Manassas, where a national battlefield park is under pressure from surrounding development.

"That battlefield is still pretty fragile," said Kat Imhoff, executive director of the Preservation Alliance.

Imhoff said that her Charlottesville-based group also is supporting "strong preservation communities" in Alexandria and Arlington.

"We think part of the solution for saving the countryside is making sure our communities are livable," Imhoff said.

"Alexandria and Arlington are two models of local governments that are trying to save historic properties."

To promote preservation efforts, the alliance is soliciting recommendations for an annual list of Virginia's "most endangered historic places," defined as sites facing "neglect, deterioration, insufficient funding, demolition or historically inappropriate development or alteration." The alliance plans to announce its first list in May 2000.