The timing could not have been worse.

Vice President Al Gore had invited chief executives of eight of the nation's largest and most influential environmental groups in for a chat about strategy and how to prevent an increasingly conservative Congress from dismantling environmental laws.But the meeting Thursday started on an ominous note.

The environmentalists had been stunned only hours before by an out-of-the-blue announcement by the Interior Department that the administration was abandoning efforts to increase grazing fees on ranchers who use public lands.

However, Gore assured the participants that the White House would fight attempts in Congress to weaken environmental laws.

"The message we got" from the meeting "was reform yes, rollback no," said Jay Hair, president of the National Wildlife Federation. He said he saw some irony in that considering the grazing retreat, adding: "There was a fair amount of anger about that."

Lorraine Voles, Gore's spokeswoman, said the meeting had been scheduled for weeks to discuss broad strategies for the coming year in Congress.

She played down the grazing issue. "The vice president has an ongoing relationship with these people. One issue is not going to change their relationship," she said.

The issue has been one of intense interest to the National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups whose top executives met with Gore and other senior administration officials.

Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, said many in the group had been prepared to urge Gore at the Thursday meeting to put grazing fee increases into the administration's upcoming fiscal 1996 budget.

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"We fully intended to talk about that again (at the meeting)," said Schlickeisen. "But we walked in having just learned within the last 24 hours that (Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt) had taken it off the table."

"So a number of us were quite upset," Schlickeisen added. Others complained of not having been advised of the impending reversal in Interior policy.

Several of the people at the meeting said Gore, when asked about grazing fees, said it had been Babbitt's decision and that he was not acquainted with the details. Babbitt was not at the private session, having already left town for the holidays. He had made his grazing fee announcement late Wednesday.

But almost every other top administration officials involved in environmental issues attended, including White House environmental policy director Kathleen McGinty, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner, Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary and Timothy Wirth of the State Department.

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