Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, wearing the signature plaid cotton shirt and wrinkled khaki pants he reserves for field trips, was confiding why he so enthusiastically supports permanent funding for a certain preservation bill being debated by Congress.

"I've been spending eight to 10 months a year with suitcase in hand," Babbitt said as he was driven around Manassas National Battlefield Park yesterday. "I know there is support for preservation out there and Congress will eventually hear the message. They listen to constituents a lot better than they listen to me."

So he goes to the constituents and hopes they'll pass his message along to Congress about the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which pays for purchasing significant historical land and open spaces. If Congress would only vote to support guaranteed funding for the protection of significant lands such as battlefields, Babbitt said, he can store his suitcase and discontinue his annual lobbying for the fund.

Babbitt took his road show to Manassas yesterday, accompanied by park Superintendent Robert K. Sutton, former senator Dale Bumpers and Civil War Trust official Jim Lighthizer, all who spoke in favor of the legislation that would guarantee $900 million annually. Currently, money for the fund is allocated on an annual basis.

Sutton wants the government to purchase a parcel of nine acres that adjoins the battlefield near the Old Stone Bridge. Although the bridge was the scene of some skirmishing and the Confederates eventually blew it up, there was little military action on the land Sutton would like to add to the battlefield.

In this case, the land is valuable because of its potential to become a scenic entrance to the park for motorists eastbound on Route 29, Sutton said. The land is now occupied by an abandoned bar and a gravel parking lot.

Concerned that the market value of the three lots now under private ownership will rise over time, Sutton said he wants it purchased now for its appraised value of $400,000. The money to buy it would come from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

If the fund receives a guaranteed amount of money, such purchases could be made immediately, Babbitt said.

Bumpers said the high point of his career was what he had dubbed the "Third Battle of Manassas." When a developer announced plans to build a shopping center on about 550 acres adjoining Manassas Battlefield to the west of the park in the 1980s, Bumpers successfully led the effort in Congress to fund the purchase of that land for the National Park Service.

Bumpers said no one had thought the land was threatened until development plans were announced.

"When I hear people say there is no hurry to buy battlefield land, I now tell them we can't wait," he said.

Lighthizer, the vice chairman of the Board of Directors of the Civil War Trust, said his organization was formed after Bumper's Third Manassas to preserve battlefield land in advance of threats by developers.

"There is tremendous development going on everywhere," he said. "Every 10 minutes, we lose an acre of Civil War battlefields. We want to avoid spending hundreds of millions needlessly."

Congress is expected to act on the proposed permanent funding legislation by Oct. 1, when the new government fiscal year begins.