When Tony Jewett first heard that the late Mollie Beattie, at the time U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director, was trying to ban hunting in the nation's wildlife refuges, he became alarmed and outraged. The news came in a 1993 "alert" from the Wildlife Legislative Fund of America - the same sportsmen's group that later pressured Outdoor Life into suppressing Tom Beck's critical bear baiting article.


Jewett feared for his favorite hunting spot in southwestern Montana, a spectacularly scenic national wildlife refuge. He started calling friends immediately.


What he discovered was a far cry from the alert, issued from the fund's headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. No one, it became apparent, was trying to halt hunting on refuges. Environmentalists had won a lawsuit forcing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to curtail incompatible activities such as grazing, waterskiing and military maneuvers on nine refuges. In the wake of that victory, they'd proposed legislation to clarify the refuge system's main mission: conservation. Hunting, now allowed on roughly half the nation's refuges, might be outlawed if, and only if, it proved detrimental to a species' survival.


No hunter who cares for the land should have a problem with that, thought Jewett, who directs the Montana Wildlife Federation. So why the alert? "Who are these guys?" he wondered.


In terms of hunting groups, the Wildlife Legislative Fund of America is a relatively new and unknown kid on the block, yet it appears to pack plenty of clout on Capitol Hill and among the hook-and-bullet press. Founded 20 years ago to fight an anti-trapping initiative in Ohio, the fund says its mission is protecting the rights of some 1.5 million sportsmen and sportswomen to hunt, fish and trap.


Much of what the fund does is predictable. Its legal office, the Wildlife Conservation Fund of America, takes on cases to preserve hunting access and to protect sportsmen from harassment by animal-rights activists. The legislative fund itself lobbies Congress and helps grassroots groups fight anti-hunting ballot initiatives, last year doling out $120,000 to battle a record six anti-hunting measures, says the fund's communications director J.R. Absher. In many ways, the group is the perfect ally for sportsmen.


"We support what they do," says Rich Gordon of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a conservation-minded sporting group that gave the WLFA $100,000 last year to fight initiative battles the foundation didn't want to get involved in. "They are highly respected in Washington, D.C."


Some outdoor writers and hunters, however, have begun questioning why the Wildlife Legislative Fund seems always to choose development over habitat, a philosophy more in tune with the wise-use movement than with conservation.


"The WLFA's sense of hunting and angling stops where wildlife conservation starts," warned Jewett in his group's newsletter after the flap over the so-called hunting ban. "They throw shallow support to hunting and fishing interests while actively promoting policies that in the short and long term will destroy wildlife habitat."


One example, say critics, is what the fund did after it issued the alert that alarmed Jewett. When the environmentalists' bill failed, the fund's lobbyists began working in 1995 with newly elected Republican lawmakers to draft its own refuge bill. The bill was written in part by William Horn, the group's Washington, D.C., lobbyist, who held top positions in the Interior Department during the Reagan era and who represents property rights advocates as a private attorney.


Sponsored by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the fund's bill would have made hunting and fishing equal to conservation on wildlife refuges. In addition, the original version of the "National Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act" would have permitted more military activity on refuges and allowed transfer of refuges to states. The bill passed the House but never came to a vote in the Senate.


Writer Ted Williams says that although the fund claimed broad-based support for the bill, only two of the eight groups it named as supporters - California Waterfowl and a bow-hunting organization - told him they favored the bill. The rest, including Wildlife Forever and the Foundation for North American Sheep, had no position or were opposed.


The fund has also worked to weaken the Endangered Species Act, says Daniel Barry of the Clearinghouse on Environmental Advocacy and Research, a part of the Environmental Working Group that tracks wise-use activity. Fund lobbyists are pushing a list of "common sense" amendments, including one that would make it easier to bring back from abroad trophies of bagged endangered species.


Other environmental groups have clashed with the fund over logging. Jim Waltman of the Wilderness Society says his group argued with fund staffers a few years ago for opposing clearcutting on national forests. "They said clearcuts were necessary for game species management," says Waltman.


But critics say the most damaging aspect of the WLFA is the distrust it spreads - a distrust of environmentalists that drives hunters further from anything that smacks of preservation of habitat.


Although the fund is now working with the NRA and with conservation groups such as the National Wildlife Federation to pressure Congress to better fund the refuge system, Waltman says the fund typically discourages alliances between sportsmen and environmentalists.


"They're bordering on hysteria," adds Waltman. "They've trumped up the power of the anti-hunting community and constructed this bogeyman that doesn't exist. Then they claim to have beaten the bogeyman."


But to staffers at the Wildlife Legislative Fund of America, the bogeyman is so real it's knocking on the door. That seemed especially true before last November's election, when Outdoor Life was poised to print Tom Beck's bear-baiting article. "Our concern was that the timing of the article would prove to be divisive among sportsmen," says J.R. Absher of the fund. "The anti-hunting people have found a tool in initiatives. They've tasted success in a few states and they understand (initiatives) can bring significant victories."


But the fund isn't the only one to blame for sportsmen's fears, say Williams and fellow outdoor writer Michael Furtman. Last year in Sierra magazine, Williams chastised environmentalists for not reaching out more to sportsmen. After being harangued by animal-rights activists and ignored by environmentalists, sportsmen found it only natural to align themselves with extreme-right groups like the National Rifle Association and the WLFA.


Hindsight is always 20/20; for now, the mistrust between environmentalists and hunters remains. "What I'm afraid of is that any hunter who questions anything is an anti-hunter," says Furtman, who draws parallels to the McCarthy "witchhunts' of the 1950s. "If hunters can't express debates within their own magazines, then where can they?"


* Elizabeth Manning