Many Virginia conservationists, angered by the state's environmental watchdog agency, are saying that the only thing it seems to be conserving of late is good judgment.

What has the conservationists filling the air with foul humor is a pair of decisions the Virginia Council on the Environment has taken recently regarding a proposed oil refinery and an attempt to designate 29 pieces of federal land in Virginia as wilderness areas.

The council decided to back construction of the refinery near Portsmouth and oppose the wilderness plan, decisions that have left some conservationists against.

"It's lost effectiveness among environmental groups," complains Joanne Berkely of Norfolk, head of a Tidewater group called CARE, Citizens Against Refinery's Effects.

"The council has taken on a balancing posture which completely neutralizes its effectiveness," says Patrick McSweeney, Richmond lawyer representing the Conservation Council of Virginia, an umbrella group of about 30 environmental organizations.

Berkely cites a letter from the council to the Norfolk office of the Army Corps of Engineers in support of the refinery. The letter contains a list of possible problems the refinery might cause, then quickly, and curiously, concludes that it should be built anyway.

"It's sort of an interesting recommendation," says Gerald P. McCarthy, who was the council's first administrator and now serves as director of privately funded environmental fund in Virginia.

Last month, the Southern Governors' Conference approved a resolution recommending that the 29 pieces of federal land in the state remain open for mining, forestry and other commercial uses.

What irritates council critics like McSweeney is that the Council not only endorsed that resolution, but rejected a motion that would have pushed for some, but not necessarily all of the land tracts to be considered for wilderness status.

"The council, in my opinion, has lost its perspective," McSweeney says angrily.

Oddly enough, it is the environmentalists who have until now been the council's strongest supports. They pushed first for its creation by executive order of former governor Linwood Holton in 1970, and then for its permanent enactment by the legisture in 1972 as a first step in protecting Virginia's ecology.

"The total favric of the environment just wasn't being addressed by anybody," said McCarthy. So a 10-member council was created, with three public members and seven from state agencies as diverse as the Air Pollution Control Board and the Department of Health.

The council was supposed to coordinate the environmental concerns of various state agencies, make recommendations based on them, and in the words of one of its own brochures, "promote the wise use of Virginia's) air, water, land and other natural resources, and to protect them from pollution, impairment or destruction . . ."

"It's not just a coordinating agency," says McSweeney who until recently was a specialist on the organization of the state government. "It's supposed to be an advocate."

Has the council worked? "No," he says flatly. Last year, for example, McSweeney found himself at odds with the council over the possible ill effects on the environment of a prison planned for construction in Powhatan County near Richmond. Eventually, the environmental lobby took its case to the legislature and won.

"We did it in spite of the council," he says.

Elizabeth Horvath, of the Northern Virginia Conservation Council, recalls how the state council's creation inspired hopes. "I just remember all these good things that were said; except we ended up with more habitat destruction," she says. "It hasn't done anything for us."

"It seems to be just another state environmental agency, and that is not what it was created for," says the Environmental Endowments's McCarthy.

"The thing that doesn't make good sense to me is that they put industrial expansion at the highest priority," says Allan Roby, a retired rear admiral who is fighting the Portsmouth refinery. "It seems to me the haven't given a token consideration to protecting the environment."

Even before the council's latest moves, the environmentalists were pushing for the creation of a separate Virginia conservation department to be split from the current Department of Conservation and Economic Development, which represents what conservationists consider to be conflicting interests. The most recent attempt failed in the legislature this year.

The council, environmentalists say, is the best compromise they can get, but it is no more than that, and its early supporters say they are disillusioned.

Former state senator Fitzgerald Bemis, one of the Council's citizen members, quit recently after the council voted against the wilderness plan. His associates say Bemis wanted to retire anyway, but that the latest council moves pushed him over the brink.

The current council administrator, J.B. Jackson Jr., is criticized for much of the council's position on the refinery, although he doesn't vote on the resolutions.

"He's ever so nice," says Louise Burke, executive director of the Virginia Conservation Foundation," "but he's confronted by some very complex issues and I think he's taking directions from the governor instead of trying to advise him."

Jackson denies that. He says the council is indeed advising the governor. But Jackson adds that the council is bound to follow the governor's policy.

"We have no manadate and no ability whatsoever to create policy," he says.

TGov. John N. Dalton, who supported the Portsmouth refinery in his campaign last year, has stessed economic growth in his policies. "We have a governor who's interested in jobs, without harm to the environment," says William Royall, a Dalton aide. "He's not callous about the environment."

The refinery, Royall says, would provide jobs and protect against the energy shortage that chilled many Virginians last year during the coal strike and the hard winter.

"Let's face it, the Portmouth oil refinery versus jobs is one of the touhest decisions a governor would have to make," Royall says.

Jackson says the refinery can be built safely, and bristles at any suggestion that the council is not concerned about the Tidewater's ecology. "I have as much love for Virginia's environment as anybody," he says.