Environmentalists are trying to enlist President Bush's support to keep oil companies out of a vast Arctic wildlife refuge, a battle they say will be a litmus test on how much he really wants to protect the environment.

For years there has been a fierce debate in Congress and between environmentalists and the oil companies over whether a 1.5 million-acre coastal strip of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska should be opened for oil drilling.In the final days of the Reagan administration, Interior Secretary Donald Hodel formally urged Congress to clear the way for oil and gas development in the refuge and proposed a land swap deal as the best way to do it.

A dozen of the leading environmental and conservation groups including some of the movement's biggest names urged Bush in a letter Tuesday to review Interior's position with an eye toward reversing the department's recommendation to Congress.

"We have strenuously opposed this proposal as a shortsighted sacrifice of a national treasure for a few months of energy that is readily procurable elsewhere," the groups said.

Bush has said his administration intends to be a strong defender of the environment, but the president also has indicated in the past that he favors expanded oil drilling in the Arctic.

Congress must approve opening up any of the 19-million acre wildlife refuge in northeastern Alaska for drilling, and it didn't take long for the issue to surface this year.

On the first day of the 101st Congress, legislation was introduced with 38 co-sponsors in the House to declare the 1.5 million acre coastal strip of the Arctic wildlife refuge a protected wilderness. On the same day, other legislation also was introduced in the House to open the same land for oil and gas development.

The oil industry "would like to move this fast" and "create a sense of national emergency" before environmental groups can mobilize, suggested George Frampton Jr., president of the Wilderness Society.