04/18/2012 06:08 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2012

Taking Our Message to Capitol Hill

One of the most powerful voices for protecting wildlife does not come from non-profit organizations, members of Congress, or renowned biologists. It comes from passionate, dedicated citizens. As constituents, everyone has the opportunity to hold elected officials responsible for upholding critical environmental laws and policies to ensure protections for wildlife and habitat remain strong.

Recently, Defenders of Wildlife partnered with several other conservation groups to help facilitate that communication by bringing wildlife advocates and experts from 17 states to Washington D.C. to speak to their representatives and senators about conservation issues important to them. The group included small business owners, anglers, bird watchers and friends of National Wildlife Refuges. These advocates took the time to travel to D.C. and share their stories with their representatives and senators, explaining why funding for wildlife conservation programs is critical to their livelihoods, recreation experiences, and the wildlife in their states.

As a part of this effort, I too traveled to our nation's capitol to speak with members of Colorado's delegation and share information on how funding the federal agencies responsible for managing our wildlife and open spaces -- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management -- can directly benefit wildlife in Colorado.

Federal spending on all land, water, ocean and wildlife programs accounts for only about one percent of the federal budget, yet these programs face draconian cuts. But cutting these modest yet vital programs will not address the problems with the federal budget. What it will do is have real and severe impacts on our nation's -- and Colorado's -- fish and wildlife, millions of outdoor recreation enthusiasts, and the economies of local communities around the country.

There's an enormous economic benefit to protecting Colorado's wildlife. Many communities in Colorado thrive on wildlife recreation and tourism. The work required to conserve wildlife and to restore and manage its habitat creates thousands of jobs for our citizens. Across the country, wildlife related recreation is a $122 billion-a-year economic engine, and here in Colorado, wildlife-related recreation generates $3 billion in economic activity every year. Additionally, the money that hunters and anglers spent in Colorado supported an estimated 21,000 full-time jobs.

When residents and out-of-state tourists travel to Colorado to hear elk bugling near Rocky Mountain National Park or view bighorn sheep, Colorado's state animal, along the Arkansas River, they spend money on lodging, food and equipment. That money spent in local communities then ripples throughout the state, strengthening our economy.

But having strong environmental policies in place to protect our wildlife and their habitat is only part of the picture. We also need make sure our federal agencies are financially capable of supporting the wildlife programs that help maintain these resources. And yet funding for vital wildlife conservation programs is under assault these days more than any time in recent memory.

For example, the National Wildlife Refuge System, the largest land and water system in the world dedicated to wildlife conservation, is just one of the programs that would be compromised by damaging funding cuts. In Colorado, these refuges protect diverse habitats such as wetlands, native grasslands, riparian habitat and woodlands, which support elk, hundreds of thousands of migratory songbirds, waterfowl and federally endangered species such as the Colorado pikeminnow and southwestern willow flycatcher, just to name a few. And in 2011, approximately 78,000 visitors took the opportunity to enjoy these wonders in Colorado alone.

Unfortunately, without sufficient funding, national wildlife refuges in Colorado may not be able to continue protecting wildlife, which would, in turn, hurt local economies.

Traveling to Washington D.C. and speaking with your representatives and senators is an incredible experience. But this is not the only way you can share your story. Every Coloradoan can visit a district office of their representative or senators, call or write these offices, or write letters to the editor of their local newspapers explaining why these programs are so important.

We are lucky that several members of our delegation, including Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennett and Representatives Diana DeGette and Jared Polis, understand why these land and wildlife conservation efforts are so critical and the key role they play in keeping Colorado's economy strong. As the battle over funding heats up in D.C., all our elected officials need to continue hearing this message so they can keep fighting to protect the programs and federal agencies that safeguard Colorado's natural heritage and outdoor legacy.