This is a topic I've wrestled with since college, and I still don't have an answer.
It came up again recently when I was filling a friend in on the ecological disaster that has resulted from the poorly managed grey wolf reintroduction in the Northern Rockies. He congratulated me on how long it took me to reach an opinion on the matter. As I thought about it, I realized I really took a wait and see approach. I like hearing wolves at night. To me, they are one of the true voices of the wilderness. Have been since I was a kid in Alaska. So I was glad to have them back, and really wasn't sure about the ecological consequences beyond that. I think a lot of conscientious folks took the same wait and see approach. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation did for sure. The problem is that the wolves reproduced so rapidly and decimated the elk population so quickly that annual counts were too crude of a measurement tool to rely on for what was happening on the ground. Add to that the always slow machinations of the federal government, and you have a big problem.
Thinking through all of this, I realized it was a case study for exactly the same conundrum that I had identified in college.
From an ecological standpoint, I'm a big fan of "Holistic Resources Management". HRM's first principle is that man's role in the ecosystem is unavoidably that of conscientious steward -- NOT inappropriate visitor. The concept of a static ecosystem that has some sort of natural state or balance that exists without man's involvement is fundamentally flawed and in fact eventually leads to disaster. From that first principle, HRM goes into a series of methodologies for how man should be involved to the best end. It mostly boils down to constant observation and mindful participation by folks on the ground in question.
Obviously, the top down management of an institution like the federal government (USDA, BLM, NPS, USFS) is completely at odds with HRM. You get policies conceived of and adminstrated in locales far removed from the ecosystems in question. You also get mono-policies applied nationwide that may work great in the ecology of one ranger district, but be a huge problem in the next ranger district over, not to mention the next forest over. I identified all of this as a problem in college, but realized with a start yesterday that the wolf reintroduction may well be the best example of that kind of top down systematic failure that I'm likely to see in my lifetime.
On the other hand, I'm not about to wax poetic about the noble western land owner who manages his domain for the good of the ecosystem. I've seen far too much jackassery by ranchers across the west to think that they're the ones I want in control of our wild lands. Their behavior is often very short sighted and understandably driven by how not to get too far behind on ranch equipment loans. The problem is usually that they're trying to make a go of it in the midst of a fundamentally untenable financial situation. You can destroy a lot of land in the process of trying to eke a living out of land that never did have enough carrying capacity to support a ranching or farming operation.
So I don't want the ham handed feds managing our wildlands, and I don't want the shortsighted locals managing our wildlands. Who am I happy with? The folks I can think of who I would trust are all people who grew up as westerners close to the land, but then went somewhere else for college and got exposed to a higher level perspective on the things they had been dealing with all their lives. When they come back, they've still got that gut level connection with the land that makes them great HRM style managers, but a longer term perspective that has them managing towards more sustainable goals. Those folks make good stewards, but they're few and far between, and not particularly welcome in federal service because they're mostly white and mostly male. Even when placed in that service, they're hamstrung by a bureaucracy that isn't set up to empower enlightened local management.
What's the ideal management model? What's an achievable management model that's better than what we have now? It's a big problem, and I don't have the answer.