In the coming days Congress will be faced with a series of historic decisions that will shape the federal budget for years to come. To be successful, lawmakers will need to achieve the delicate balance between cutting excess, redundancy and waste while also generating strong returns on federal investments to benefit our struggling economy.

These will be difficult decisions and, as our Founders envisioned, a vigorous debate has commenced to help inform how they are made. However, there is one set of issues where members of Congress should put their differences aside and unite behind a common vision: conserving and preserving our nation's natural and historic treasures for the benefit of current and future generations. Dedicating the resources necessary to achieve this goal is not only patriotic - it's a smart business decision.

Some argue that America can no longer afford to invest in our natural resources, pastimes and historic landmarks. As a businessman, I strongly believe that we can't afford not to. In short, President Theodore Roosevelt had it right more than a century ago when he said: "There can be no greater issue than that of conservation in our country."

Conservation, recreation and preservation are a unique component of the federal budget because the funds dedicated to these programs pay for the stewardship of the lands, historic places and wildlife habitat that are owned by all American citizens.

Conservation and preservation programs constitute only 1.2 percent of the overall budget. However, these programs are primers for generating exponentially greater nonfederal investments. Natural resources conservation, historic preservation and outdoor recreation contribute more than $1 trillion to our economy each year. This supports millions of American jobs, the overwhelming majority of which are impossible to export abroad. For example, outdoor recreation alone creates nearly 6.5 million jobs for individuals directly employed in the industry.

The federal budget cannot and should not be balanced disproportionately on the backs of conservation, outdoor recreation and historic preservation programs at a time when they are creating such strong returns on the taxpayer's investment.

Americans have long taken pride in preserving our natural and historic resources because they are at the very heart of our economic, cultural and social well-being. We conserve wildlife habitat and open spaces for camping, hiking, hunting and fishing and preserve our historic buildings, artifacts and landscapes because doing so creates a legacy and continues a unique American heritage. As President John F. Kennedy said: "It is our task in our time and in our generation, to hand down undiminished to those who come after us ... the natural wealth and beauty which is ours."

American taxpayers and our elected leaders must join together in the coming days and stand firm on behalf of our national treasures. If we fail, history will judge us as the generation that turned its back on the natural and historic assets that define the heritage of our great nation.

Nau is chairman emeritus of the Civil War Trust, vice chairman-elect of the National Park Foundation, a trustee of Ducks Unlimited's Wetlands America Trust and former chairman of the President's Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

Posted by John L. Nau, November 15, 2011, on