When Gerry Stover took a job with an environmental group in 1986, he knew he was something of a pioneer. Like other minorities, blacks had largely gravitated toward causes that seemed closer to home, such as civil rights. Even his mother was baffled by his choice.

"When I told her I was leaving my job to work for the Trust for Public Land at a third of my former salary, I got an emotional tirade," recalled Stover, 37. Among other things, his mother asked, "If you want to do something like that, why not do it for the NAACP?"

Four years later, Stover is still in the environmental movement -- and he is still a pioneer.

Despite extraordinary growth over the last two decades, the mainstream environmental movement remains, overwhelmingly, the province of middle- and upper middle-class whites. Minority involvement tends to be confined to local groups focused on specific threats to human health, such as hazardous waste dumps, lead poisoning and industrial air pollution.

The dearth of minorities and those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder has prompted charges of elitism and even racism. Minority spokesmen accuse environmental groups of lackadaisical minority hiring and of shirking environmental problems that fall disproportionately on minority and inner-city communities.

"We're not trying to take over the environmental movement," said Benjamin Chavis, executive director of the United Church of Christ's Commission on Racial Justice. "What we're saying is it . . . {needs to} become more inclusive."

Spokesmen for national environmental groups say they couldn't agree more. Mainstream organizations are increasingly concerned that the lack of minority representation jeopardizes their claim to represent the interests of all Americans. They say they are laboring heroically to broaden their support, tailoring programs to meet minority concerns and recruiting aggressively.

"We're very, very sensitive to this issue, and we're moving heaven and earth" to attract minorities, said Frederic P. Sutherland, executive director of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund.

Last year, national environmental groups formally signaled their concern by helping to create "The Environmental Consortium for Minority Outreach," which Stover directs from an office on K Street. Subsisting on foundation grants, donations from conservation groups and consulting fees, he tries to match minorities with environmental jobs in Washington and elsewhere.

"There was a recent time when you could ask a room full of environmental CEOs how many went to Yale and half the hands in the room would go up," said Stover, himself an Amherst College graduate and the son of two physicians. "What we're trying to do is eliminate the excuse that 'we don't have any minorities in our applicant pool.' "

To some degree, all nonprofit groups suffer from competition with the higher-paying private sector in recruiting minorities from a limited pool. But spokesmen for environmental groups acknowledge that their memberships are overwhelmingly white and well-off. A recent survey by the Sierra Club's magazine found that 42.3 percent of its readers have post-graduate degrees, compared with 4.9 percent of the U.S. adult population. Median income was $53,900.

Figures like this have led to charges they are indifferent to the special needs of minorities and the poor. Several studies have documented the link between poverty and pollution, most notably a 1987 report by the United Church of Christ that identified race as the most significant of several factors in the siting of hazardous waste dumps. Other priorities include asbestos contamination, lead poisoning and airborne toxics.

But to many minorities, national groups seem less concerned with human health than they are with hiking trails and exotic species. In a Washington Post poll last spring, nearly half of all blacks surveyed agreed with the statement, "Environmentalists care more about plants and animals than they do about people." Only a third of whites agreed with the statement.

"The exclusion of people of color . . . has created blind spots that are very detrimental to the saving of the environment," said Pat Bryant, director of the Gulf Coast Tenants Association, a Louisiana group fighting toxic air and water pollution in the region's "chemical corridor."

A black minister's son who operates out of a working-class neighborhood in New Orleans, Bryant credits the Sierra Club's Baton Rouge chapter with assisting in the campaign to clean up pollution in poor neighborhoods. But he added, "It was not until . . . poor black folks raised the question of who was being poisoned that people even took notice."

Bryant also criticized the club for collaborating with industries that he says are polluting minority communities. Last spring, for example, when Sierra Club activists solicited industry contributions to help pay for Earth Day activities, Bryant accused the white environmentalists of selling out. "We don't take blood money," he said. "They were taking money from the same companies that poison the environment."

Paul Davidson, a biologist who heads the Baton Rouge chapter, blamed the dispute on a question of style. "We don't want to be out ranting and raving in front of businesses," he said. "We want to be sitting down at the table and talking with these people. . . . This is a heavily industrialized community."

Minorities also have clashed with mainstream groups on economic matters. One well-known example occurred in Washington three years ago, when white environmentalists succeeded in placing on the ballot a recycling initiative to require deposits on bottles or cans. The measure lost in the face of overwhelming opposition by black voters, who feared it would hurt small businesses.

Similarly, minority spokesmen have criticized proposals by mainstream environmental groups for sharply higher gasoline taxes aimed at curbing domestic energy use. "The middle-class, white environmental movement is making that argument because they can afford it," Chavis said. "In black, Hispanic and Native American communities, that would be disastrous."

Earlier this year, Chavis and other civil rights leaders chronicled their grievances in a letter to environmental groups, demanding that they restructure their staffs to include 35 to 40 percent minorities. "Racism is a root cause of your inaction around addressing environmental problems in our communities," the letter charged.

Spokesmen for the environmental groups admit that progress has been slow. The Wilderness Society, for example, has no minorities on its board of directors and, in a work force of 130, only four in professional positions. The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund has one minority, of Asian descent, on a staff of 27 lawyers. Friends of the Earth USA lists two minorities, both Native Americans, on its 27-member board.

"To a lot of minorities, when you mention the Sierra Club or the Wilderness Society, the image that comes to mind is leftover hippies poking placards up in the air," said the Wilderness Society's Ben Beach. "How many minorities have even heard of the Wilderness Society?"

But there is some evidence that racial lines are beginning to blur in the environmental movement. In New York, for example, mainstream groups recently threw their weight behind a $2 billion bond initiative for environmental projects such as land acquisition and recycling. The measure failed, but not with any help from the NAACP.

"We encouraged our members to vote for it," said A.B. Martin, president of the NAACP's New York City chapter. "If you're going to clean up the environment, it's going to cost money."