WHEN word spread that a white-supremacist group was looking for new members in rural southern Oregon recently, some 1,500 opponents rallied at the Josephine County courthouse in Grants Pass to hear speeches by human rights advocates and religious leaders. The neo-Nazi organizer who had moved into the area quietly postponed his recruiting efforts.
It was a good-news story for those fighting bigotry. But according to experts who track such activities, the episode also was one more indication that militias -- some potentially violent, some with connections to racist and anti-Semitic organizations -- have been growing nationwide in recent months.
''There's a whole lot of new militias that continue to form every week,'' says Chip Berlet, an analyst with Political Research Associates in Cambridge, Mass., a think tank that studies the political right wing.
During the past year, according to the Klanwatch Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of states in which the Idaho-based group ''Aryan Nations'' is active grew from three to 18.
''It's a dangerous situation,'' Klanwatch Project director Danny Welch said in issuing the investigative group's annual report last Friday.
According to the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, states that have seen recent militia activity include Arizona, Idaho, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, Montana, and North Carolina.
Determining how many people are involved with such groups as the ''Colorado Patriots,'' the ''Militia of Montana,'' or the ''Texas Light Infantry'' is difficult. They are generally secretive, loosely organized, and conspiratorial. Some claim several thousand members. Estimated totals of active members range in the tens of thousands with many more sympathizers willing to listen to their message.
''There are perhaps 5 million persons who consider themselves part of the 'Patriot' movement, and between 10,000 and 20,000 persons in over 40 states who are involved in the armed militia movement,'' Mr. Berlet reports.
Those tracking militias say these groups are organizing around such emotional, political, and social issues as gun control, immigration, abortion, gay rights, taxation, and the move to return government authority to the state and county level.
According to the most virulent spokesmen and organizers, increased rhetoric and recruiting also focuses on two violent events: the 1992 shootout between Idaho white separatist Randy Weaver and federal officials, in which Weaver's wife and son and a US marshal were killed; and the fiery attack by federal agents on the Branch Davidian group in Waco, Texas, in 1993 when 85 cult members perished. In several instances, militia members have been arrested for illegal possession of weapons and ammunition.
In a recent issue of its newsletter ''Intelligence Report,'' Klanwatch points out that ''most militias are without a racist agenda.'' Some militia leaders have publicly denounced bigotry.
But based on law-enforcement reports and its own investigations, the Alabama-based group also warns that ''the influence of white supremacists and their sympathizers spreads beyond their immediate locales to militias nationwide via a network of fax machines, computer bulletin boards, shortwave radio broadcasts, and mail-order videos.''
One Montana-based group has a 900-number telephone hot line called ''Fed-Up America.'' Those attracted to militia groups also can hook up to the ''American Patriot Fax Network'' or listen in on the ''Sovereign Citizens of America Network'' on confidential radio frequencies.
''It is arguably the first US social movement to be organized primarily through nontraditional electronic media, such as the Internet,'' observes Berlet, whose think tank has its own electronic bulletin board.
WHILE militia groups and their sympathizers are found in all parts of the United States, they seem to be more prevalent in the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain states -- where independence and a frontier mystique have been a particular source of pride. These also are regions that have far fewer nonwhite residents than the rest of the country. Many of the anti-gay-rights elections have been held here.
And legitimate opposition to the federal establishment is strongest here, as exemplified by such things as the fight to wrest control of federal lands and a level of support for Ross Perot in 1992 that was markedly higher than the national average.
In essence, the growth of militias thus can be seen as the dark side of the so-called ''sagebrush rebellion'' or ''wise-use'' movement. ''Clearly there's some overlap,'' Berlet says.
While experts are convinced that militias are sprouting up and that Aryan Nations has seen a marked resurgence (at a time when Ku Klux Klan and skinhead groups seem to be declining), they aren't quite sure where this social and political movement is headed. ''It's new, and it hasn't figured out what it's central character is other than it doesn't like the government,'' Berlet says. ''We're waiting to see what the 'what else' turns out to be.''