11/11/2011 12:02 pm ET Updated Jan 11, 2012

Message to Congress: Healthy Lands and Waters Support a Healthy Economy

What do The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, the Civil War Trust, the National Marine Manufacturers Association and the Saucony shoe company have in common?

Of course, they all have a shared interest in getting people outdoors. But they are also part of America's Voice for Conservation, Recreation and Historic Preservation. This broad coalition of businesses and nonprofit organizations is urging Congress to support conservation of our natural and historic resources as it addresses the Federal budget deficit.

The group's more than 1,000 member organizations represent tens of millions of Americans with diverse backgrounds and political views. What they have in common is a shared understanding that natural resource conservation, outdoor recreation and historic preservation programs are vital to the health and prosperity of the American people.

Coalition members have signed onto a letter urging Congress to address the federal deficit without disproportionate cuts to critical programs that protect our country's tremendous natural and historic heritage. This outpouring of bipartisan support is more evidence of what public opinion polls say -- the overwhelming majority of Americans support conservation.

There are many reasons for this support. One very important -- and often overlooked -- reason is the important role of conservation in sustaining our country's economy.

A new study commissioned by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation reveals the huge benefits conservation provides to the nation's economy. For example, healthy lands and waters are the backbone of our country's thriving outdoor recreation industry, which supported more than 6 million jobs and contributed $730 billion to the US economy in 2006. Billions more in economic activity come from agriculture, forestry, commercial fishing and other components of our natural resource based economy.

In my view, these numbers underscore a serious misconception in the way we think and talk about government funding for conservation. Taking a short-term view, funding is just another word for spending. In the long run, however, such funding is a smart investment that produces very attractive economic returns.

And conservation investments sustain the valuable benefits that nature provides to people -- safe and plentiful water supplies, coastal buffers from storms, reduction in pollution and support of agriculture and forestry.

Take the Farm Bill, for example. Conservation programs within the bill encourage farmers and forest land owners to conserve and manage their land in ways that reduce soil erosion, improve water quality, mitigate the risks of flood damage and provide wildlife habitat. These programs were cut significantly during the House's work on the Agriculture Appropriations bill in June.

These cuts may result in short-term savings. But in the long run, we will pay back heavily in costs from flooded homes and farmlands, and polluted runoff that contributes to the Gulf of Mexico's "dead zone," an area of water where depleted oxygen levels prevent any marine life from surviving. According to The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the dead zone costs the US seafood and tourism industries $82 million a year.

The organizations that comprise the America's Voice coalition understand the need for addressing our nation's fiscal health. We recognize that conservation programs should shoulder their fair share of spending reductions.

However, as I pointed out at the coalition's press conference last week on Capitol Hill, conservation funding accounts for a mere 1.26% percent of the current federal budget.

Conservation spending did not cause the budget deficit and cutting conservation cannot fix the deficit.

This is not to say that all conservation funding is justified, especially in the face of a budget crisis. We need to look hard at the efficiency of government conservation programs and find better ways to accomplish more with less. Following the budget decisions, there should be a systematic process to re-design, better coordinate and integrate the conservation and environmental programs of the federal government. My organization, The Nature Conservancy, has submitted a paper on this topic to the Council on Environmental Quality and the White House Office of Management and Budget. We look forward to working collaboratively and constructively with the federal government to make better use of our country's conservation dollars.

But in the meantime, as federal budget deadlines loom, I hope that Congress recognizes the immense value of programs that sustain our country's irreplaceable natural resources. Healthy natural systems are the foundation for a healthy economy. We owe it to the next generation to leave them with both.