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Managing for the Unknowns: Adaptive Resource Management

By Addie Haughey

Adaptive resource management is an iterative approach to environmental decision-making that adjusts as outcomes from management are better understood over time.  More simply, adaptive management is a way of making decisions when we do not know everything we would like to know (from Runge).  This approach offers managers and stakeholders the opportunity to set a framework for appropriate decision-making at the outset and then let it play out over time as more information is gathered.

For example, instead of mandating that a certain risky activity be restricted or forbidden, an adaptive approach to management might say that the risky activity can proceed so long as a key resource is not degraded.  Take wind energy and bats:  A wind farm might have a management regime mandating that if monitoring shows that bat mortality has reached a pre-set threshold, then operations must be adjusted – perhaps by changing the times of day or seasons that turbines operate to avoid further mortalities.  Building a wind farm next to a bat roost still doesn’t make sense under this hypo, but we can acknowledge that we do not know enough to predict what bat mortality will be at a specific location, and put in place an emergency brake to deal with future impacts.

Adaptive management also allows for variables like climate change to play out over time. Rather than asking managers to guess what approaches will work under unpredictable future conditions, predetermined responses to a range of possible conditions can be set ahead of time.

Adaptive management has been applied in all sorts of resource management efforts with varying degrees of success.  The Forest Service, for example, just finalized an updated forest planning rule. The rule, which guides the development of land management plans on 193 million acres of National Forest System land, follows an adaptive approach of assess forest conditions -> revise forest plan -> monitor changes in forest conditions.  The agency started to lay out this framework early in the rulemaking process on their blog, and have incorporated the structure into their final rule, with sections of the regulation for each of the three steps.

Two key areas that can make or break the success of an adaptive management plan are the strength of the management triggers and quality of information gathered through monitoring.


As Nie and Schultz point out, good decision-making triggers – thresholds that induce a change in management – are key to successful adaptive management.  They lament that, in some circumstances, adaptive management has been used to increase flexibility and discretion instead of to improve resource management. The development of thoughtful and adequately strong triggers, coupled with focused and clear direction for how managers must respond if triggers are met, leads to better plans, not blank checks for risky behavior.

For stakeholders and watchdog groups, triggers and associated management standards provide a lifeline to enforceability, allowing them to hold a resource manager accountable when a trigger or threshold has been surpassed.  Squishy thresholds (like “clean apartment when it gets dirty”) lead to uncertainty for stakeholders as well as for the managers themselves, trying to make the right call under competing pressures.


In adaptive management, information is key.  Even with the best triggers and clear management direction for responding when triggers are reached, a failure to effectively gather information on the resource being managed is fatal.  The development of triggers must be accompanied by the development of associated information gathering protocols.  Information can be tricky to gather and even experts can disagree on methods – for example, how often does someone need to visit a wind turbine and examine the area for dead bats in our wind farm example from above?  For many adaptive management endeavors, cost also becomes a major roadblock.  Information is expensive and public budgets are decreasing and, at best, fluctuating.

Adaptive Management and Forest Planning

In the context of the Forest Service’s new planning rule, each of these adaptive management challenges will need to be faced head on.  New forest plans must set standards that operate as effective triggers – laying a course for plan amendments and changes in forest management that respond to changing conditions and support healthy and resilient ecosystems.  As importantly, monitoring protocols will need to be comprehensive, mandating information gathering to determine whether key objectives are being met.  The use of best available science won’t be enough for this to succeed – the agency and its allies will also need to fight hard for the funding and resources to gather the needed information.

Adaptive management provides an important tool for managing ever changing ecosystems and resources, but its success is not guaranteed, and pitfalls like vague triggers or a lack of information threaten effectiveness.  Moving forward, adaptive management itself can be adjusted to better serve its purpose, leading to smarter management of our resources.


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