Assistant Secretary John B. Crowell Jr., the Department of Agriculture's overseer of forestry and natural resources issues, has created a stir with a suggestion that two major environmental groups are infiltrated by socialists and communists.

Crowell told the Albuquerque Journal earlier this month that he was "sure" that the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society "are also infiltrated by people who have very strong ideas about socialism and even communism."

Crowell, a former member of the Audubon Society, could not be contacted yesterday for elaboration, but an aide to Rep. James H. Weaver (D-Ore.) said the assistant secretary had confirmed to him the accuracy of his remark.

The Audubon Society and the Sierra Club--as well as the Wilderness Society, to which he belonged for 20 years--have been among Crowell's sternest critics over his policy of increasing the timber cut in national forests.

Audubon President Russell Peterson responded angrily yesterday to Crowell's remarks, equating them with McCarthyism. "It is irresponsible and reckless, in the same league as Interior Secretary James G. Watt's comments."

Watt caused a flap last year by saying he didn't differentiate between Republicans and Democrats, but rather between "Americans and liberals."

Peterson added, "If ever any organizations were deeply concerned about what this country is all about, it's these organizations of hundreds of thousands of members who are concerned about the quality of life . . . to have them labeled this way is absolutely irresponsible."