12/20/2013 01:07 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2014

Affirming Our All-American Conservation Values Through the Endangered Species Act

Conservation of our precious natural resources used to be a defining American value. Across the political spectrum throughout the late 1960s and '70s, there was near-universal agreement that we must conserve our air, land, water and wildlife for future generations. Indeed, many of our nation's conservation laws were passed with the enthusiastic support of wide bipartisan majorities. This was especially true of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), signed into law 40 years ago this December 28 by Republican President Richard M. Nixon.

The ESA is the ultimate representation of America's commitment to responsible stewardship. It underscores a fundamental recognition of our duty to conserve native wildlife for posterity. And that's also why I've devoted most of my professional life to upholding, defending and strengthening it.

But my own reverence for wildlife and the special places throughout the country protected by the ESA isn't the result of any professional position or title I've held. I grew up in a military family; I am the daughter of a U.S. Army officer and I lived on or near numerous military bases throughout my childhood. With such constant change, it was hard to maintain lasting friendships, and it was frustrating to constantly be making a whole new set of friends that I knew would be lost with the next move. But the thing that stayed consistent were the animals that I encountered -- rabbits, foxes, and deer in the fields, backyard birds and frogs in the local creek and fire flies each summer. Very early in my life, I found comfort and a connection to wildlife. I feel fortunate that I have been able to evolve my passion into a life-long mission and a career where I believed I could make a difference for this country's imperiled wildlife.

The ESA is one of our most enduring and successful environmental measures. Examples of the ESA's success in protecting species and their habitats are extensive: Bald eagles, peregrine falcons, gray wolves, Florida manatees, American alligators, grizzly bears, and black-footed ferrets have all been rescued from the brink of extinction.

Obviously, this kind of success takes decades to achieve, but the results of continued protection are undeniable. Sadly, since I started working with the ESA in the late 1970s, I've seen a dramatic shift in the way our political leaders talk about conservation. It seems we have lost sight of the fundamental American values that united us across party lines 40 years ago. At that time, our leaders talked about the ESA and evoked the wonder, awe and reverence we shared as a nation for our amazing natural heritage. Today, way too many lawmakers seem quickly willing to undermine the ESA, which they falsely claim is burdensome and an intrusive federal overreach. In the last Congress, Defenders of Wildlife chronicled a record number of attacks on the ESA and we've seen devastating new ones emerge in this current session.

After 40 important years of protecting America's wildlife for future generations, we find ourselves at a familiar crossroads, similar to where our leaders stood when they originally passed the ESA.

We must ask ourselves again the same questions that were debated back then: What kind of nation do we want to be? Do we want to be a country that protects its wildlife and natural heritage? Will we sit back and passively watch as the worsening effects of climate change and increasing energy development across the landscape affect our wildlife in dramatic ways? Or, will we reaffirm our core American conservation ethic and once again rally behind the values that our leaders embraced 40 years ago? The choice is ours. The decision will be felt for generations to come. Let's hope our nation once again makes the right choice. The right choice is to uphold the conservation values and sense of responsibility to future generations that shaped the ESA 40 years ago. Future generations deserve nothing less.