Now that the 40th anniversary of Earth Day has passed, perhaps it’s once again safe to talk about who’s actually working every day to save the environment.

Reader warning: Some of the enviropols who believe Earth Day was created to empower government should proceed with caution.

Private landowners, private company owners and managers, engineers and technologists are among the people doing the most to protect the planet these days – mainly because they’re finding practical, market-oriented solutions. While some in the environmental movement look first to government for mandates, the real innovation usually comes from people in the private world.

The political environmentalism of the past 40 years was arguably born of necessity. Business-as-usual was not protecting the air, water and land; there were grievous examples of pollution crossing local and state borders, which invited action by Congress and federal regulators. The Clean Air, Clean Water and Waste Management Acts and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency were among Washington’s responses.

The regulatory actions of the 1960s and 1970s were welcomed as medicine to help cure a throwaway society. Over the decades, however, the cure became something of a disease itself.

What began as a check on environmental abuses grew into a command-and-control system that inhibited innovation and technological progress while widening the gulf between people and the natural world – a world that, in fact, includes people. The state became an environmental nanny, constantly wagging a scolding finger but rarely encouraging anyone to do better or teaching them how.

The regulatory system became disconnected not only from nature but also from other branches of human activity. In art, music, science, commerce, sports and just about any other human endeavor, the goal is continuous improvement. In nanny environmentalism, the goal is compliance with minimum standards rather than the achievement of measurable gains.

In civic or “hands-on environmentalism,” gains are being made in the forests, ranches and watersheds of the United States, where people with private stakes are nurturing land, water and wildlife. Those people collaborate with government when it makes sense, of course, but their actions usually rest upon enlightened self-interest, sound science and an investment of their own time and money.

The Sand County Foundation, which is based in Wisconsin, has been charting the accomplishments of farmers, ranchers, loggers and more for years. One of its core programs is the Leopold Conservation Award, named for Wisconsin conservationist Aldo Leopold, author of “A Sand County Almanac.”

This year’s winner was the Kalkowski family of Boyd County, Neb. The family has owned and managed its ranch since Larry Kalkowski bought the first 160 acres in 1957. As the ranches expanded, land was cleared and restored by removing old homesteads, buildings and fences. Terraces and berms were added, ditches reshaped and the ground reseeded with native grasses. Land that had been farmed for many years was returned to natural grassland. Kalkowski was a pioneer in rotating pastures, a practice that has been expanded by his sons who have added prescribed burns as a land management tool.

In 1998 the family outlined priorities that would guide their management decisions, which are reflected in this statement:

“We will commit ourselves to excellence, striving to carry on family traditions while creating new ones. We will remember that nurturing our children in a rural setting was a focal point in acquiring the river ranch and that the safety and well-being of our children is of prime importance. We hope that they will learn the satisfaction of hard work and the joy of relaxation in the outdoors.

“We will remember that we are only stewards of the soil and have a grave obligation to conserve all natural resources and do everything possible to protect and preserve the land.

“We hope to maintain a reputation that is synonymous with honesty and integrity and to produce a quality product.

“We recognize the obligation to give back to Boyd County by supporting church and community and to share the gift of the land with others.”

In a nation where nearly two-thirds of the land is privately owned, the most cost-effective stewards are those who live on it and work it. Over the next 40 years, perhaps Earth Day will come to recognize that people with incentives trump bureaucracies with mandates every time.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and co-author of “Hands-On Environmentalism,” published by Encounter Books.