Adaptive Management

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Adaptive management

Adaptive management is taking an idea, implementing it, and then documenting and learning from any mistakes or benefits of the experiment. The basic idea behind adaptive management is that natural systems are too complex, too non-linear, and too multi-scale to be predictable. Management policies and procedures must therefore become more adaptive and capable of change to cope with unpredictable systems.

Advocates suggest treating management policies as experiments, which are then designed to maximize learning rather than focusing on immediate resource yields. If the environmental and resource systems on which human beings depend are constantly changing, then societies who utilize that learning cannot rely on those systems to sustain continued use. Adaptive management mandates a continual experimental process, an on-going process of reevaluation and reassessment of planning methods and human actions, and a constant long-term monitoring of environmental impacts and change. This would keep up with the constant change in the environmental systems to which the policies or ideas are to be applied.

The Grand Canyon Protection Act of 1992 is one example of adaptive management at work. It entails the study and monitoring of the Glen Canyon Dam and the operational effects on the surrounding environment , both ecological and biological.

Haney and Power suggest that "uncertainty and complexity frustrate both science and management, and it is only by combining the best of both that we use all available tools to manage ecosystems sustainably." However, Fikret Berkes and colleagues claim that adaptive management can be attained by approaching it as a rediscovery of traditional ecological knowledge among indigenous peoples : "These traditional systems had certain similarities to adaptive management with its emphasis on feedback learning, and its treatment of uncertainty and unpredictability intrinsic to all ecosystems."

An editorial in the journal Environment offered the rather inane statement that adaptive management "has not realized its promise." The promise is in the idea, but implementation begins with people. Adaptive management, like Smart Growth and other seemingly innovative approaches to land use and environmental management, is plagued by the problem of how to get people to actually put into practice what is proposed. Even for practical ideas the problem remains the same: not science, not technology, but human willfulness and human behavior. For policies or plans to be truly adaptive, the people themselves must be willing to adapt.

Haney and Power provide the conclusion: "When properly integrated, the [adaptive management] process is continuous and cyclic; components of the adaptive management model evolve as information is gained and social and ecological systems change. Unless management is flexible and innovative, outcomes become less sustainable and less accepted by stakeholders. Management will be successful in the face of complexity and uncertainty only with holistic approaches, good science, and critical evaluation of each step. Adaptive management is where it all comes together."

[Gerald L. Young ]



Holling, C. S., ed. Adaptive Environmental Assessment and Management. NY: John Wiley & Sons, 1978.


Haney, Alan, and Rebecca L. Power. "Adaptive Management for Sound Ecosystem Management." Environmental Management 20, no. 6 (November/December 1996): 879886.

McLain, Rebecca J., and Robert G. Lee. "Adaptive management: Promises and Pitfalls." Environmental Management 20, no. 4 (July/August, 1996): 437448.

Shindler, Bruce, Brent Steel, and Peter List. "Public Judgments of Adaptive Management: A Response from Forest Communities." Journal of Forestry 96, no. 6 (June, 1996): 412.

Walters, Carl. Adaptive Management of Renewable Resources. NY: Macmillan, 1986.

Walters, Carl J. "Ecological Optimization and Adaptive Management." Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 9 (1978): 157188.