It's time for a new approach toward environmental cooperation.

The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) proposed changes in confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) regulations promise to affect virtually every person in the cattle industry (see page 28).

Let's face it, the dust will never settle on this issue — livestock operations will continue to be scrutinized, regulated and controlled for as long as there is one single steer left to go to the feedbunk.

The problem stems not as much from people who hate cows, but from the values people place on clean water, air and open space. With the exit of an administration that was largely anti-agriculture, perhaps it's time for a new environmental ideology.

For the past decade or so, the concept of “free market environmentalism” has been sifting through the fabric of the country. It's a concept that values economic incentive over brute regulatory force as a primary tool in promoting environmental responsibility among citizens and property owners.

The idea is that when private property rights are well defined and protected, support for environmentalism from property owners will follow. Skeptics are quick to call the concept an oxymoron, but we've seen that when government and lawmakers stand clear, free market solutions can be long lasting and very environmentally friendly.

Even the most radical, well-funded environmental groups are finding that lawsuits make slow and expensive progress. The more reasonable groups are looking for innovative ways to channel their money toward solutions.

Free market environmentalism isn't perfect. The Defenders of Wildlife in the northern Rockies, which created a private fund to compensate ranchers for wolf-killed livestock, offer a good example. The program has shown limited success due to logistics — it's hard to prove what's a wolf kill and what isn't.

A success story, however, is the Delta Waterfowl project. While it deals with a much more benign class of wildlife, the program provides landowners an economic incentive to preserve waterfowl nesting areas in Prairie Pothole regions.

And in New York, calcium-rich industrial sludge from an IBM plant is being recycled for use in local cement kilns. This is a case where economics and practicalities overcame government regulation of hazardous waste — recapturing raw materials and saving valuable landfill space.

In many parts of the nation, public-private lands trusts, conservation easements and land swaps are providing a balance between private property rights and a universal need to preserve open space.

One of the leaders in promoting free market environmentalism is the Political Economy Research Center (PERC). The ripples caused by what began as a small cadre of Bozeman, MT-based agricultural and political economists has helped foster this concept worldwide.

There may be ways to use this free market approach to address real and perceived agricultural water quality issues — a subject that's got as much to do with the future of cattle production as any other single factor.

The costs of implementing the new EPA regulations covering CAFOs will be monumental — to both government and business. No matter how conservative or liberal the final CAFO rules are, few feedyard owners, ranchers or feed suppliers will be able to stand the costs alone.

Granted, the track record for free market progress on the pollution front has not been good to date. The EPA's penchant for using deadly force to protect our water has imprisoned innovation and experimentation.

But we have to start someplace, sometime.

Terry Anderson of PERC gives a great example. It involves public and private entities that discharge waste into the Tar-Pamlico Sound in North Carolina.

There, a non-profit river organization funds efforts by farmers to reduce non-point source pollution. It's faster, cheaper and involves far fewer headaches than fighting in court or going to the government for help.

Take a look around your operation and area for ways to partner with individuals and organizations that have reasonable interests and aspirations. They might be looking for environmental cooperation — at a lower cost.