02/03/2014 11:13 am ET Updated Apr 05, 2014

Saying Goodbye to Two Great Conservation Champions

Wanted: Candidates for Congress; essential duties include protecting our nation's natural resources and imperiled wildlife for generations to come. Qualifications: a strong stewardship and land conservation ethic; leadership skills and a keen understanding of the important role that nature plays in the health and well-being of mankind.

For decades, we have been lucky to have two great conservation champions in Congress: Congressmen George Miller and Jim Moran. Both have fulfilled their legislative responsibilities as true conservation leaders for our nation, providing a voice for our nation's wildlife and public lands.

Congressman Miller of California has worked tirelessly to protect his state's critical water resources, combat the effects of climate change, ensure that our public land conservation systems are managed with long-term stewardship goals in mind, and has been one of the most effective advocates for the conservation and restoration of imperiled wildlife across the nation. He has opposed all attempts to open the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling and been a true champion and fierce defender of the Endangered Species Act.

Congressman Moran of Virginia has been another stalwart defender of the environment. As a senior member of the appropriations committee, Congressman Moran has supported funding for vital wildlife programs and repeatedly fought anti-environmental riders on funding bills that would have seriously weakened our nation's bedrock environmental laws, undermined imperiled species recovery and damaged special places. He has been a champion for the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay and protecting our nation's waterways from environmental toxins.

Together, Congressmen Miller and Moran have been true conservation leaders and defenders of the stewardship values that were embedded in all of our environmental laws in the 1960s and '70s. Representing both the east and west coasts of our country they have spoken out and voted for some of the most historic legislation of our times on wildlife, the environment, climate change and our national parks and wildlife refuges.

Sadly, both Miller and Moran have announced their retirements at the end of this year. The huge vacuum they will leave behind needs to be filled... and quickly. Other champions for the environment still remain on the Hill, but they will need reinforcements and new recruits to their ranks as attacks on our key environmental laws continue unabated.

It used to be that conservation of our country's natural heritage was a bipartisan national priority. Protecting our imperiled wildlife and other natural resources was not a red or a blue issue, but a consensus issue that reflected and epitomized our core values. Indeed, it was not that long ago that the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act all passed with overwhelming bi-partisan support.

But today is different: the political climate for conservation is the about the most challenging I've ever seen.

Our country is having extremely polarized debates about our environmental goals and legacy -- too often driven by those who seemingly know the cost of everything and the value of nothing, especially with regards to natural heritage. It seems like every day, someone in Congress is introducing another bill or rider that would undermine virtually every major environmental law on the books. Bills that would sell off our federal lands, waive environmental safeguards designed to protect human health, undermine endangered species protections, and allow for dangerous and unsustainable development on our public lands are now commonplace.

A perfect example is the recent bill announced by House Majority Leader Boehner and some members of the California Congressional delegation. Using the unprecedented drought in California as an excuse to waive protections for endangered species, they are blaming conservation programs in the Bay Delta area near San Francisco as the reason for water shortages. Last time I checked, endangered species do not control the weather and precipitation cycles in California and in fact, the water restrictions that Speaker Boehner and his colleagues are interested in overriding are designed primarily to protect water quality for major urban water supplies, not endangered species.

That some members of Congress are willing to sell our health, our wildlife and our natural heritage to the highest bidder is not news. Nor is their argument that any environmental regulation - no matter how justified or warranted -- is too much of a burden in these tough economic times. What is different though, is the growing intensity of these attacks and the shamelessness with which they are launched.

With champions like Congressmen Miller and Moran departing at the end of this Congress, we need to actively recruit others to take their place to combat these trends. Republicans, Democrats and Independents - their political affiliation should not matter as long as they embrace the conservation values that were so prevalent in Congress, 40 or more years ago. Our nation owes a big debt of gratitude to Congressmen Miller and Moran for the legacy they will leave behind. Perhaps the best way to thank them for their service to our country is to make conservation a priority in our own lives, to communicate our support for the environment with our own elected officials, to challenge them to be the next leaders in conservation, to support candidates that are ethically driven to be good stewards of our nation's wildlife and natural resources for decades more to come. That is the best thanks we can give these two retiring leaders and the best gift we can give ourselves and the generations that follow.