A band of Montgomery County activists, some of whom helped County Council member Neal Potter win the Democratic nomination for county executive, is working to make the environment a key issue in local politics.

In recent months they have affiliated themselves with mainstream political parties, issued endorsements and worked for the election of candidates they hope will give the environment a higher priority in county and state government.

Their efforts reflect a widespread belief that county government, in particular, has embraced development while squandering its natural resources.

The environmentalists' recent grass-roots organizing is spurred in part by their earlier failure to influence the county. Environmentalists "concentrated their efforts at the state level and didn't pay attention to the county level," said Sierra Club lobbyist Jim Clarke.

As a result, they fought losing battles to sway the Montgomery County Council against projects such as the controversial planned solid waste incinerator and Bethesda-Silver Spring trolley. "The environmentalists lost on the big issues," Clarke said.

Last fall, about a dozen environmentalists and civic activists formed the Montgomery County League of Environmental Voters to push for a stronger role in local politics. This spring, the league published an environmental score card, ranking County Council members according to their votes on issues that included farm land preservation, Silver Spring development and the planned Inter-County Connector highway. Potter was ranked highest, followed by County Council member Bruce T. Adams.

In the weeks before the Sept. 11 primary, the league collaborated with a new, local political action committee called Vote Environment to issue endorsements in county races.

"Clearly, there were good candidates running for County Council, and some bad ones too," said Michael Gravitz, Vote Environment's treasurer. "We wanted to have an impact."

The league's efforts drew mixed results. Its board members worked for Potter, and they claim partial credit for his surprise victory over incumbent Sidney Kramer in the Democratic primary for county executive.

Gene Lynch, running for an at-large seat on the council, was backed by the league, but he lost.

The group's efforts have been hampered by the need for more money and name recognition.

"They're not nearly as well organized as labor groups, business groups or even neighborhood groups," said Lynch.

Nevertheless, "the environment is more of an issue now," said league treasurer Neal Fitzpatrick.

Another environmental group, the Montgomery County Green Democrats, was organized in May to instill the local Democratic Party with a stronger environmental awareness. President Bob Aberman, who started the club with his wife, Marguerite Mayo, said some environmentalists consider the party too cozy with developers, while local politicians often dismiss environmentalists as "naive tree-huggers."

Nearly half of the Green Democrats' 50 members are elected officials and candidates for the County Council and Maryland General Assembly. Potter is also a member.

Aberman acknowledged that candidates may have joined the club primarily to court votes.

"As long as they keep their promises, I don't care," he said. "If these people turn out to be hot air, we will not be shy about exposing them."

The club did not endorse any candidates in last month's primary, and is not issuing any in the general election, but is likely to do so in future elections, Aberman said. The group also emphasizes participation in environmental projects and will join an Oct. 13 community cleanup of Rock Creek.

"We intend to be a permanent presence in this county," said Aberman.

County Council member Adams, a member of the Green Democrats who is running for reelection, said the environmentalists' efforts "help fill a gap in the public debate."

Adams said local candidates have talked much more about the environment than when he first ran in 1986.

"We need this pressure," he said.