From the center of Antietam National Battlefield, a panorama of wheat fields and zigzagging rail fences stretches for miles to the green slopes of South Mountain and beyond.

But at the edges of this and other Civil War sites lies the perennial line between the forces for economic development and the desire to preserve every acre of history.

Now preservationists have adopted a new strategy, pointing to a recent study that shows that efforts to save battlefields might actually boost the local economy more than development nibbling at the edges.

"I've never heard someone say, 'Gee, I'm hungry -- why isn't there a hamburger restaurant right next to here?' " said Thomas Clemens, president of Save Historic Antietam Foundation. "People want to see, as much as possible, Civil War sites that look the way they did at the time it took place."

That seemingly paradoxical theory was greeted with skepticism by a group of investors considering one of the more controversial projects under discussion: to build a casino near Gettysburg, Pa.

"I guess that's the 'Don't build it, they'll come,' theory, which goes very counter to what most people think," said John Brabender, a spokesman for the investors. He said the investors group, Chance Enterprises, plans to release its own economic-impact study in the next few weeks.

"It's going to show that there will be a positive impact in the region," he said.

The debate over battlefield preservation comes as federal spending on such efforts is expected to increase: Congress has made "historic battlefields" eligible for money from the six-year, $286 billion transportation bill enacted in August. In 1992, Maryland used an implicit interpretation of the law to use federal funds for the purchase of farmland at Antietam Battlefield, said James Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Preservation Trust. Since then, 11 states, including Virginia, have used federal transportation enhancement grants for battlefield preservation.

At times, the federal government has intervened directly to save historic sites: In 1988, President Ronald Reagan agreed to purchase land adjacent to Manassas National Battlefield Park rather than allow a shopping mall there.

Lighthizer cited a recent report by his organization that suggests that preservation makes good economic sense. By restoring the battlefields to their original look, the sites become more attractive to tourists. Their money is more valuable than most, because they demand few services in return. Putting new homes on the same land, on the other hand, would mean building more schools and hiring more police, Lighthizer said.

The preservation trust commissioned the two-year study of 13 battlefields, including Antietam, Gettysburg and three Virginia sites: Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania and New Market. Gettysburg draws the most visitors, with about 1.6 million a year. Fredericksburg drew 373,465; Antietam attracted 198,331.

The survey, released in May, found that Civil War tourists tend to be older, well-educated and affluent. At Gettysburg, they spent $121 million on restaurants, hotels and entertainment. Antietam tourists spent $10.8 million, while visitors to the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park spent $20.5 million. The study also found 2,653 jobs connected to the Gettysburg site. Fredericksburg supports 387 jobs, and Antietam has 309, the survey found.

But most important, preservationists said, is the intangible value of history.

"Sure, you can put up a plaque in a fast-food parking lot that says on such-and-such a day, General Lee met with another Confederate general," said J.W. Howard, superintendent of the Antietam National Battlefield.

Antietam, where 90 percent of the 3,300 acres that the federal government considers the battlefield is untouched, is among the best-preserved sites in the country, Lighthizer said. "You need no imagination to come out here and envision what they saw," he said during a recent visit.

In Gettysburg, by contrast, about 60 percent of the land within the 10,000-acre federally drawn boundary is set aside as battlefield. A proposal for a luxury hotel, spa and at least 2,500 slots just outside that boundary has met opposition from historians and preservationists far from the ground hallowed by the largest land battle in North American history and President Abraham Lincoln's address.

When the investors announced their casino plan in April, they said the Gettysburg Resort and Spa, at the juncture of Routes 15 and 30, would generate $10 million a year for the area.

"As you read the different arguments, there are credible points being struck on both sides," said Steven Renner, president of the nonprofit Adams County Economic Development Corp. He said the group has taken a wait-and-see approach.

Brabender, the investors' spokesman, said the venue would be at least 11/2 miles from any historical site, would avoid glitz, and could help an area that he said has had declining numbers of tourists relative to other destinations for "several years."

Several historians, including Princeton University's James McPherson and Civil War author Jeff Shaara, have spoken against the plan, and an opposition group has formed. Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D), in a recent appearance on Pennsylvania Cable Network, also expressed doubts.

"I think he realizes that this site is political suicide," said Susan Star Paddock, who heads No Casino Gettysburg. She said recent polls show that 54 percent of Adams County residents oppose the casino and 31 percent support it. A poll of tourists found the percentages more lopsidedly against the plan.

"There are just some places we need to have more reverence for," Paddock said.

Matt Borders, left, talks to visitors about Civil War artillery at Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Md.