San Francisco — Environmentalists are often avid backpackers; now many have become PAC-backers in this election year.
Spurred by what they see as a Reagan administration drive to dismantle or weaken the laws passed in the last two decades to clean up and protect air, earth, water, and wildlife, environmental groups are getting more directly involved in this national election process than in any previous one.
More than 30 national and state political action committees (PACs) expect to spend more than $2 million informing candidates and voters on environmental issues, working directly for some office seekers, and contributing money to key campaigns, according to spokesmen for the Sierra Club (SC) and Friends of the Earth (FOE). Another leading organization in the 1982 effort is the League of Conservation Voters, which was the movement's first national PAC.
FOE's political action committee is called FOEPAC; the Sierra Club's is SCCOPE - the Sierra Club Committee on Political Education. Both these San Francisco-based organizations are expending more than money to support pro-environment candidates. Their members are actively working - going door-to-door in many districts - to help elect or reelect governors, senators, and congressmen who are committed to conservation and environmental protection.
Rob Kutler, national political director for the Sierra Club, points out that the environmental organizations and their PACs, unlike some others, do not attack opponents of ''their'' candidates, but try to make voters aware of which candidate in each race is pro-environment. Only Interior Secretary James Watt - who is not running for anything but may be a factor in some elections - has been singled out for the kind of harsh, personal criticism by environmentalist organizations that other groups are noted for in national elections.
The environmentalists have used their financial resources carefully. Even with a surge in support in reaction to the statements and actions of Secretary Watt, these groups don't approach the money-raising efficiency of the conservative PACs which, in general, support candidates opposed by environmentalists. Although the $2 million the environmental groups have available this fall is almost double what they spent in the 1980 elections, major PACs considered anti-environmentalist are expected to spend more than $14 million, according to Bob Chlopak, FOE campaign director.
Together, the national environmental groups set up a training institute, Americans for the Environment, to conduct seminars throughout the United States. In these sessions, members are being taught the fine points of campaigning in order to get out the ''green vote'' on Nov. 2.
The Sierra Club has circulated two pamphlets - ''The Green Vote Handbook'' and a ''Platform for the Future.'' The handbook gives detailed instructions on such things as recruiting volunteers, polling, making campaign signs, canvassing door-to-door or by phone, and fund raising.
The platform, subtitled ''An Agenda for the 1982 Congressional Elections'' is aimed at office seekers as well as voters. It explains in detail virtually every national environmental issue and tells candidates what they can do in regard to each subject to win the support of environmentalists. Mr. Kutler says a copy was mailed to every candidate for Congress.
There is no national ''environmental slate,'' but most groups have by now decided on a list of candidates for the US Senate and House, and for governor, whom they will work to elect or reelect. State and local environmentalist groups are working for specific candidates at those levels.
Naturally, there is general consensus, even without consultation, on many candidates for Congress. There also are many strong supporters of the environmental cause in the House and Senate who need little or no help in getting reelected.
Some well-known individuals - or their opponents - who are getting help from the environmentalist groups are: US Rep. Morris K. Udall (D) of Arizona; Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. of California, the Democratic nominee for US senator; Democratic Gov. Richard Lamm of Colorado, up for reelection; US Rep. Toby Moffett (D) of Connecticut, who is running for the US Senate; US Sen. George Mitchell (D) of Maine; Democratic US Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland - a particular target of some right-wing PACs; Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and US Rep. Gerry E. Studds, Massachusetts Democrats seeking reelection; US Sen. Donald W. Riegle (D) of Michigan.
Also, Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat nominated to try to unseat US. Sen. Harrison Schmitt (R) of New Mexico; two Republicans in Rhode Island - US Sen. John Chafee and US Rep. Claudine Schneider; Democrat Ted Wilson, who is trying to unseat conservative Republican US Sen. Orrin Hatch in Utah; US Sen. Robert Stafford (R) of Vermont; US Sen. William Proxmire and US Rep. Robert Kastenmeier, both Democrats, in Wisconsin; and Democrat Roger McDaniel, who is attempting against strong odds to unseat US Sen. Malcolm Wallop in Wyoming.