As a conservationist and backpacker, I'm tired of being called an elitist. Oh, I've gotten used to hearing such things from my ideological enemies. When former Arizona congressman Sam Steiger used to fulminate about "heavy breathers" and "green bigots," I could detach myself from the issue at hand and award a few points for excellence in invective. But it rankles when so acute an observer as The Post's William Greider ["The Rise of Corporate Environmentalism," Outlook, Jan. 4] joins in the jeering.

I take as my test a remark in Grieder's essay. "There is a flavor of class bias surrounding certain environmental issues, protecting pristine shores and woodlands for the precious few who can afford them." This is one of those nettlesome commonplaces that, upon examination, turn out to be unfounded.

Precious few? No one who has taken to the wilds in recent years could make such a characterization. The trails teem with hikers, the streams ooze canoeists. On the Current River, part of the Ozark National Riverway in Missouri, I have seen canoes pile into each other like cars on a foggy highway.

Yosemite National Park requires each overnight hiking party to submit an itinerary in advance. The purpose is a stagger the parties and lessen their toll on the trails and water sources, and it's a rare plan that wins the rangers' approval without some rerouting. The rangers at Virginia's Shenandoah National Park have been issuing an average of 75,000 wilderness permits annually, most of them covering more than one hiker. Not only are Americans using the back country by the millions; they are using it to the hilt.

Who can afford [to use] them? The outlay needed to equip a backpacker is modest: a careful shopper could probably get by for less than $200. And if you amortize that sum over the number of nights spent in the wilds -- nights that might otherwise have been spent at motels or resorts -- trekking becomes a bargain. In any event, the outlay is minuscule compared with the cost of the campers that many Americans tug into the parks.

A recent study by the Department of Government at Idaho State University profiled backpackers and drivers of off-road vehicles. The results confound the prejudice that ORV users better represent the average Joe than do hikers: there is no significant difference in the two groups' incomes, and hikers have more education by only six-tenths of a school year.

I don't mean to deny all connection between wealth and wilderness preservation. Undoubtedly, people require a certain amount of the leisure that characterizes a wealthy society in order to engage in either ORV-driving or backpacking. And it takes a certain level of economic well-being in society as a whole to generate widespread concern for "the commons." Dirt-poor Sudanese can hardly be expected to quit cutting brush for fuel because -- viewed from a satellite -- they are consigning more acreage to the desert. What I am resisting is the assertion that conservationists belong to an exclusive class bent on cordoning off wilderness enclaves from the mass of Americans. There is no such class, and wilderness permits are issued by the most democratic of methods: first come, first served.

At bottom there is something cockeyed about the notion that people who travel in wilderness are an elite. To delight in clean air and water, to respond to natural beauty, to revel in the vigorous exercise of one's limbs and lungs -- all this requires no knowledge of Proust or Schonberg. It demands only the possession of basic human equipment -- senses and muscles. We are standing the concept of elitism on its head -- not to mention admitting that Americans have all but lost an important link with the hardihood of their pioneer ancestors -- when we say it is snotty to walk a wilderness mile.

I have a suspicion as to the real impetus for branding environmentalists as elite. They succeed all out of proportion to their numbers and funding in their battles with agencies and corporations. Hence, disappointed and resentful developers have taken to portraying the Sierra Club and Audubon Society as cabals of haughty whiz-adults. My explanation for their remarkable success is a straightforward and populist one: by and large, as polls continue to show, the environmentalists' message appeals to the average American.