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The Role of Adaptive Management as an Operational Approach for Resource Management Agencies

Barry L Johnson, USGS, Upper Midwest Enviromental Sciences Center


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In making resource management decisions, agencies use a variety of approaches that involve different levels of political concern, historical precedence, data analyses, and evaluation. Traditional decision-making approaches have often failed to achieve objectives for complex problems in large systems, such as the Everglades or the Colorado River. I contend that adaptive management is the best approach available to agencies for addressing this type of complex problem, although its success has been limited thus far. Traditional decision-making approaches have been fairly successful at addressing relatively straightforward problems in small, replicated systems, such as management of trout in small streams or pulp production in forests. However, this success may be jeopardized as more users place increasing demands on these systems. Adaptive management has received little attention from agencies for addressing problems in small-scale systems, but I suggest that it may be a useful approach for creating a holistic view of common problems and developing guidelines that can then be used in simpler, more traditional approaches to management. Although adaptive management may be more expensive to initiate than traditional approaches, it may be less expensive in the long run if it leads to more effective management. The overall goal of adaptive management is not to maintain an optimal condition of the resource, but to develop an optimal management capacity. This is accomplished by maintaining ecological resilience that allows the system to react to inevitable stresses, and generating flexibility in institutions and stakeholders that allows managers to react when conditions change. The result is that, rather than managing for a single, optimal state, we manage within a range of acceptable outcomes while avoiding catastrophes and irreversible negative effects.

Key words

adaptive management, decision making, ecological resilience, ecosystem management, flexibility, replicated systems, resource management agencies, stakeholders.

Copyright © 1999 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087