Former senator Gaylord Nelson had just finished thundering against the Reagan administration's environmental policies in an Ohio speech when he received a surprise call from a member of the president's Council on Environmental Quality.

The council member, Ernest Minor, wanted a copy of the speech. ("That's powerful stuff," Minor reportedly commented after reading it.) Then he wanted an appointment with Nelson, chairman of the Wilderness Society. The society, one of the administration's sterner critics, normally receives little more than a cold shoulder from appointees of President Reagan.

The meeting was part of a new and wide-ranging administration offensive to overcome what White House aides increasingly view as a political liability: the combative relationship between conservationists and Reagan's two top environmental policy makers, Interior Secretary James G. Watt and Environmental Protection Administration chief Anne M. Gorsuch.

The campaign is being waged at a time when polls show a growing public perception that administration policies are harming the environment, and when the White House's own polls show voters want to use tax dollars to protect air, land and water resources, even as they call for less government. Conservation groups have recently shifted the focus of their attacks from Watt and Gorsuch to the White House.

The administration envisions no dramatic policy shifts in this campaign, however. Instead, it has embarked on an extensive public relations drive to sell its environmental policies to the electorate and convey an image of moderation. "You would think from what the conservationists say that we favor drilling for oil in the national parks," complained an administration official.

Watt and Gorsuch, under fire for their aggressive styles and industry ties, had become such political lightning rods that they could not propose even minor policy changes without triggering intense scrutiny, another senior administration official said.

"It would have been dangerous to let those caricatures set in," the official said yesterday in explaining the administration's campaign.

The offensive extends well beyond CEQ's efforts at shuttle diplomacy with conservationists. At Interior and EPA, there is a new strategy of going around the Washington-based conservation groups and press, which officials here consider less friendly than their counterparts in the heartland. And in hopes of defusing future attacks, the administration is scheduling periodic briefings for conservationists with EPA and Interior officials, the first of which was held Friday.

Gorsuch believes EPA has been "unduly maligned by the rumor mill."

She has hired a Denver public relations consultant to counsel EPA on how to buff up its media image, tarnished by criticism that recent hazardous waste and clean air proposals are too weak. She has also scrapped her low profile of the past year in favor of appearances on morning news shows and more frequent meetings with reporters and organizations. EPA has also stepped up enforcement efforts in response to recent criticisms and reportedly plans to toughen its stance on what hazardous wastes will be allowed in landfills.

Recently, Gorsuch gave the Cabinet a 20-minute briefing on "how much we were doing to protect the environment," a senior administration official said. There are also plans for her top aides to take EPA's message beyond the Potomac.

As Gorsuch raises her profile in Washington, the far more flamboyant Watt appears to be lowering his own, tempering his role as lightning rod for the Reagan Cabinet. Watt has temporarily stopped granting press interviews, and plans to spend up to half his time between now and the Nov. 2 general election raising money for GOP candidates and spreading Interior's gospel of "environmental balance" in friendly western states.

It began after a White House meeting last January between conservationists, CEQ officials and presidential counselor Edwin Meese III. The meeting did not go well. "I told Meese and his assistants that I gave them an 'F' for their first year's performance," National Audubon Society leader and former CEQ chairman Russell W. Peterson said later in a memo on the session.

The standoff, combined with a Harris poll showing public disaffection with the administration's environmental record, led CEQ officials to suggest to presidential assistant Craig Fuller that they start a program of "outreach" to environmental groups.

"Some of the polls made the White House concerned that our programs are not being explained to the public and therefore we jolly well better get out on the stump and explain them," Minor said. "Not change them, explain them."

Since then, Minor and CEQ Chairman Alan Hill have met privately with Peterson and other leading environmental lobbyists and attended a National Wildlife Federation meeting in Milwaukee. These sessions had only mixed results, said Minor, who accused the leaders of politicizing the environmental issue, a charge the groups normally level at the administration.

CEQ also called on the Conservation Foundation, a think tank sometimes known as the "Vatican of the environmental movement" because of its detachment from politics, to act as liaison with the more activist groups.

Conservation Foundation president William K. Riley, who also heads the Natural Resources Council of America, set up last Friday's session at CEQ in which EPA's Rita Lavelle briefed 10 environmentalists on the administration's solid waste management plans and its Superfund program for cleaning up abandoned hazardous waste.

The meeting began with a five-minute pitch from Don Ferguson, the Denver consultant now working with Gorsuch, who explained his efforts to improve EPA's image. This opener did not please some of the environmentalists.

"What we want is less PR and more action," said Khristine Hall, who represented the Environmental Defense Fund at the 90-minute session.

While Hall and other participants said they remain skeptical of administration policies, CEQ Chairman Hill expressed optimism. "The people who attended feel better about the entire situation after a dialogue," he said.

Environmentalists have started an outreach campaign of their own, prompted by the charged tenor of their relationship with the administration.

"We had to respond," said Wilderness Society executive director William A. Turnage, recalling Watt's characterization of environmental groups as "left-wing extremists" bent on bringing down the American way of life.

Turnage and Nelson have met recently with major corporate executives to discuss the environment. "They don't want this to become a partisan issue, but they fear it is happening," Turnage said.

The environmentalists and Reagan administration officials describe their outreach efforts as "bridge building." But so far, the common ground appears to end there. And if Nelson's encounter with Minor is an indicator, the public relations campaign will not bridge the gap.

Nelson, a longtime conservationist, said he was unmoved by the CEQ official's pitch.

"If they simply change their rhetoric, the confrontation will continue," Nelson said. "What we want is a change in policy, policies that are destructive to the heritage of America."