The natural resource reforms surrounding the Progressive Era, 1890 through WWI, were surely positive experiments in resource management. They did a great deal to preserve today's lands of romance. The creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 is the best example. Their greatest reform contributions were protecting common pools and constraining the unlawful exploitation of resources.
By today's standards, in that era America was a poor Third World economy, society, and culture. Life expectancy was under 50 years and family income under $5,000 (in today's dollars). Half the population lived in poverty and more teens worked than attended school. People in these circumstances are far more concerned with survival than ecological stewardship.
In this historical and cultural context the best conservation option was management by well-trained natural resource professionals in government agencies such as the Forest Service and Biological Survey (1905), Park Service, (1916), and similar state organizations. These were, and largely remain, valuable innovations. They surely were improvements over non-management.
While appropriate for the time, the command-and-control paradigm of scientific management by federal bureaucrats is way outdated. Bureaucratic pathologies and political opportunism are predictable outcomes of incentives built into the design. We also have a deeper understanding of institutions and a strong appreciation of the contributions of entrepreneurship to many forms of environmental services.
Further, America has become remarkably wealthy. And as people become educated and rich they also become Green. The conservation ethic is common, through rarely deep. Quite naturally, many people with high human capital are attracted to our romance lands and become its sentinels and monitors. The great majority of them support conservation and preservation and none of them arrive to mine, log, or dam. Rather, they come to explore, experience, and consort in natural settings and with civil people who share their culture.
Governmental ownership with primary responsibility for management of our romance lands will surely continue. The vast majority of citizens support public lands and believe only government ownership will provide it. However the NRE explains why many sincere conservationists are increasingly attracted to cooperative arrangements with the private sector. Yellowstone Forever, the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, are stellar examples.
As federal agency budgets are increasingly stressed by the tsunami of entitlement obligations generated by Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and retirement obligations, there will be ever more reliance on cooperative arrangements with the private sector. Why expect this outcome? In the political arena entitlements trump ecology, welfare beats wildlands.
Ultimately, some environmental and conservation groups will explore having some wildlife refuges, forests, parks and monuments become public fiduciary trusts, organizations independent of government management. This evolutionary move would help realize the Progressive Era ideal of protecting our romance lands from the predation of special interests. They relentlessly operate in both the governmental and private sectors. Fiduciary trusts offer well-tested means to protect the treasures of our romance lands.