05/09/2014 04:40 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2014

What Happened to Stewardship in Congress?

Stewardship of our natural heritage has gone missing in Congress. Forty years ago, our political leaders acted as visionary statesmen when they passed a series of landmark laws to protect the treasured natural resources on which we all depend: our air, land, water and wildlife. These bold leaders approved the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act with wide bipartisan majorities, believing it was their generation's responsibility to protect our country's heritage for future generations. Back then, conservation was not a partisan issue, it was an American duty and responsibility. And, it was Congress' duty to set the example as steward of those incredible resources.

But today, many of our political leaders have lost sight of their stewardship responsibility to the American public. Instead of conserving and protecting America's natural resources, many members in Congress seem primarily focused on short term economic gain, regardless of the environmental consequences. They are working hard to deliver a legislative agenda that seems to align directly with today's powerful oil and gas, mining, development and polluting industries. Forty years ago, conservation was a cause founded on integrity and a sense of civic responsibility. Today, it is just one more issue on the chopping block, used by too many in Congress as a scapegoat to advance a shrunken, selfish vision of government, based upon a partisan deregulation agenda that, if adopted, would destroy the keystone safeguards that were put in place to protect our communities and our natural resources.

Despite the potentially devastating consequences, too many members of Congress continue to propose draconian cuts to programs that conserve imperiled wildlife and their habitat. While many of these bills do not make their way past the Senate, the aggressive partisan attacks on our nation's natural resources is emblematic of the larger anti-conservation fever alive today in the House of Representatives. Last year, the House version of the Department of the Interior appropriations bill included a drastic 27 percent cut in funding for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the Service) -- our premier federal agency tasked with overseeing protections for imperiled wildlife. In addition to proposing staggering budget cuts, the House Natural Resources Committee continues to propose excessive burdens and bureaucratic hurdles on the Service, while disingenuously touting its attacks as benign "conservation reform." This is especially true when it comes to the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Today, the ESA has a dangerous and powerful adversary: Representative Doc Hastings, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. In February, Chairman Hastings and his self-appointed, highly partisan "ESA Working Group" issued a report and set of sweeping anti-ESA "reforms," outlining a strategy that would severely weaken the law's ability to protect our most imperiled species and their habitat. In April, Hastings supported four bills drawn from his so-called reform package and rammed them through his committee. These bills do nothing to speed recovery of imperiled wildlife or advance endangered species conservation. Instead, the bills would dramatically reduce the ability of the public to hold agencies accountable for complying with the provisions of the ESA, generate more red tape, warp the scientific basis for protecting imperiled species, and create huge new bureaucratic hurdles to species recovery. In short, these bills provide a cynical pathway towards accelerated species extinctions.

While Democratic members of the House Natural Resource Committee proposed amendments to blunt the impact of these harmful bills, those amendments were rejected and the bills were passed along party lines.

The House leadership cannot continue to conceal its attacks on imperiled wildlife. Disingenuously hiding behind the euphemism of conservation "reform," their goal of gutting our nation's ability to protect imperiled wildlife and our natural heritage must be stopped. We cannot let the voice of a powerful but vocal few outweigh the interests of the American public which overwhelmingly supports effective conservation. Instead of tired politicking, it would be refreshing to see conservation stewardship once again become the hallmark of our broken and dysfunctional Congress.