A Libertarian’s Guide to the Environment

Last week I addressed the tension between protecting the commons and protecting freedom. (And thank you for your thoughts… Keep them coming.)

Few of us want the commons trashed, but without government intervention, complete individual exploitation is the norm.

People are often surprised when they meet me to learn that I’m conservative – even libertarian – yet I care about the environment. In our culture, those two themes seldom occupy the same stage, unfortunately.

My problem with libertarians is our cavalier approach toward environmental stewardship… as if human cleverness will always figure out a way to grow food, produce water and offer breathable air.

The rise and fall of nations, including wars, often hinges on food availability, which hinges on resource management.

We scoff at environmental stewardship to our own peril.

But are government programs the answer?

Follow the Rules

In a recent public presentation promoting our farm’s various water protective and enhancement techniques, I was surprised that the greatest pushback came from two farmers who had participated in government cost-share programs.

Let’s say I’m a farmer, and I want to protect the stream traversing my property by excluding my cows. (That’s a laudable goal for a lot of reasons.)

I call in the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which administers the program. It sends out its engineers.

In essence, I need two things. One is a fence to keep the cows out. The second is an alternative water source since the cows can’t drink from the stream anymore.

To qualify for the cost-share program, the farmer can’t do these two things however he wants. The design and procedures are tightly designated in the program.


In our area, for example, the program installs only stationary water points. Because these are high-impact zones, they need concrete pads and sometimes gravel aprons. The actual watering trough is a two- or four-compartment drinking bowl regulated by a float valve (kind of like the valve in a toilet tank).

Because of the valve structure, the water tube orifice is about the size of a pencil – it’s restricted for the valve to work. That means water can’t come in very fast.

In a 100-acre pasture, then, the government engineers may install four of these watering points. This setup works only if the animals are not rotationally grazed and instead are allowed continuous access to the whole pasture.

That enables a few to drink out of one water point and a few others to drink out of another. The water flow is too slow to service all the cows at one place.

The Irony

On our farm, we practice management-intensive grazing, which mimics the bison choreography of moving, mobbing and mowing.

Rather than having the cows spread all over our 100-acre pasture, we have them clumped in a tiny portion. With electric fence as a brake, accelerator and steering wheel on those four-legged pruners, we can steer the herd around the pasture with the same precision as a zero-turn mower on a golf course.

Such a system requires portable water because the cows are in a different paddock every day. And it requires a different kind of valve – a high-flow valve – to allow water to fill a trough as fast as it goes through the main service pipe. Rather than running at 300 gallons per hour, a full-flow valve can deliver 1,000 gallons per hour.

But the cost-share program does not use this kind of infrastructure.

Its engineers design and install a system that actually precludes managing the land in an ecologically enhancing way.

This is the irony of it all.

Here’s a program lobbied into existence by environmentalists to protect riparian zones, but which by definition prohibits the kind of grazing that builds soil and vegetative protection on the landscape.

An Asset That’s a Liability

Developing an alternative source of water is another issue.

The precursor to the NRCS, the old Soil Conservation Service (SCS), did a cost-share program in the 1950s to install farm ponds.

But with the advent of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), farm ponds moved from being assets to being liabilities – at least in the government’s mind. Ponds attract waterfowl, which are thought to be the carriers for high path AI.

The accepted practice is wells. But wells are expensive, deplete the commons (aquifers) and can fail without notice.

On our farm, rather than drilling wells, we install ponds. This mimics the prolific beaver ponds of yesteryear and actually creates more riparian areas.

They cost half the price of a well, reduce flooding, increase the commons and can be monitored for inventory. I can walk out anytime and see how much water I have in storage.

Again, what makes the most environmental sense is viewed by the government cost-share program as a liability. It subsidizes poking holes in the aquifer and depleting the commons, which is opposite the stated intent of the enabling legislation.

Good Fences… Let Cows Wander

Now we get to the fencing for exclusion. We use a single strand of aluminum electric fence along the streams. If a flood comes and tears it out, it’s easy to rebuild.

But again, the government doesn’t see this simplicity in a favorable light.

The cost-share program requires a physical fence. That means lots of posts and multiple strands that catch debris in a flood. It’s expensive to install and expensive to maintain.

Because it’s a physically significant structure, this type of fence isn’t conducive to meandering along the river. It must be installed straight line to straight line. That setup creates pinch points for livestock.

Cows never walk in a straight line. They meander according to the terrain.

A straight fence with corners inevitably leads to erosion – again, exactly opposite the intent of the enabling legislation.

Upside Down

The contentious interchange with these two farmers who said they could not have taken care of their riparian zones without cost-share money is frustrating.

Many people call me anti-environmental simply because I don’t promote these government cost-share programs.

Anyone who says they can’t do the right thing without the government’s help is either dependent or terribly uncreative.

I would argue that our farm demonstrates a far more practical outworking of what these environmentalists want to see, but because they work through the government rather than the private industry, their good intentions get turned upside down.

Most good intentions, when operated through the government, make things worse instead of better.