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CONSERVATIONISTS REAP BITTER WINDFALL FROM CATASTROPHES

The Alaska oil spill, last summer's beach pollution and reports of global warming have pumped new life into the American environmental movement, which is reaping a bitter windfall with each new catastrophe.

Officials of some of the nation's leading conservation groups say they have been inundated with donations and new members during the past year or so, especially after the March 24 spill of nearly 11 million gallons from the oil tanker Exxon Valdez.Although environmentalists insist they aren't gloating over Exxon's misfortune, they can't hide a sense of vindication.

"This spill has just really presented an opportunity," said Lee Keller Reis, a National Wildlife Federation spokeswoman. "You hate to say, `We told you so,' but it's a way to make a point."

Although the organization cannot say how many members were added in response to the Alaska spill, it does know that donors have contributed $400,000 to an Alaska Fund established after the disaster, she said.

The federation is among several groups that took advantage of the spill to send out direct mail appeals for contributions. One such mailing sent out by the Defenders of Wildlife was the organization's most successful ever, according to Carol Waite, the group's development director. The plea yielded $200,000.

"I think that was just indicative of how angry people are over this devastation," Waite said.