10/31/2011 02:11 pm ET | Updated Dec 31, 2011

This Halloween Could Mean Scary Cuts to Wildlife Conservation Programs

It's Halloween and Congress is eyeing some downright scary cuts to vital wildlife conservation programs as part of its budget cutting frenzy. But while these programs may seem like easy targets for cuts, there is a lot more to the story.

Hundreds of thousands of people have jobs because the federal government funds programs like National Parks and the National Wildlife Refuge System. And everyone who visits these special places -- to hike, photograph, hunt, fish, camp, bike, etc. -- spends money on their chosen method of recreation. So when you cut funding for wildlife conservation programs like wildlife refuges, it's important for Congress to remember that you also risk losing jobs and further hindering our economic recovery in addition to the damage done to our natural heritage, damage that will be costlier to repair later than it is to prevent now.

Wildlife conservation and wildlife-related activities are big business.

In 2006, the total contribution from outdoor recreation -- hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, hiking, camping, skiing, and bicycling -- in the United States was nearly $821 billion a year. That translates into about 6,435,000 U.S. jobs and $99 billion in federal and state tax revenues.

Indeed, the main engine driving the economy of many local communities in and around national parks, wildlife refuges, and other federal conservation areas is wildlife-related tourism and activity. Just visit any small town or city around wildlife refuges, national parks and other outdoor recreation areas and you will see what I mean.

Moreover, these programs are an investment. Funding these programs and conserving wildlife now is a lot cheaper and smarter than rescuing imperiled animals down the road, when their numbers plummet and the situation becomes critical or restoring degraded lands allowed to deteriorate without basic maintenance support. That's when more drastic and costly measures are needed; similar to repairing a bridge now vs. replacing the bridge after it collapses. Sadly, this simple equation seems to escape some in Congress, many of whom are the first to complain when the bridge collapses.

Congress will never be able to come close to balancing the budget by cutting funding for wildlife conservation programs.

Yet there are some in Congress who would target these programs first. They do so not out some long term fealty to fiscal discipline, but largely because they never valued these conservation programs to begin with. Many would rather promote increased oil and gas drilling, logging, and development; the economic downturn just gives them the excuse they needed to defund wildlife programs they have long held in low regard.

But doing so is extremely short-sighted. Wildlife conservation is not a luxury, it's an investment and a key building block of what makes our country healthy and strong. Yes, when you conserve wildlife you are preserving a key slice of our natural heritage for future generations. But you are also preserving jobs and helping to keep the economic engine that keeps so many local, hard-hit communities running. And you are making a smart money play, chipping in now to avoid having to pay more later.

These are tough budgetary times and everyone should be expected to sacrifice a little. But in our zeal to cut, let's not let those who oppose federal environmental protections in general use this crisis as an excuse to slash wildlife conservation programs that are both a smart economic investment and a down payment on the preservation of our natural heritage. And let's be sure to call out those who hypocritically seek to weaken wildlife programs only to complain later when animals are pushed to the brink and more stringent and costly measures are required to rescue them from extinction.