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Benson, M. H., and A. B. Stone. 2013. Practitioner perceptions of adaptive management implementation in the United States. Ecology and Society 18(3): 32.
Research, part of a special feature on Exploring Opportunities for Advancing Collaborative Adaptive Management (CAM): Integrating Experience and Practice

Practitioner Perceptions of Adaptive Management Implementation in the United States

1University of New Mexico, 2Central New Mexico Community College


Adaptive management is a growing trend within environment and natural resource management efforts in the United States. While many proponents of adaptive management emphasize the need for collaborative, iterative governance processes to facilitate adaptive management, legal scholars note that current legal requirements and processes in the United States often make it difficult to provide the necessary institutional support and flexibility for successful adaptive management implementation. Our research explores this potential disconnect between adaptive management theory and practice by interviewing practitioners in the field. We conducted a survey of individuals associated with the Collaborative Adaptive Management Network (CAMNet), a nongovernmental organization that promotes adaptive management and facilitates in its implementation. The survey was sent via email to the 144 participants who attended CAMNet Rendezvous during 2007–2011 and yielded 48 responses. We found that practitioners do feel hampered by legal and institutional constraints: > 70% of respondents not only believed that constraints exist, they could specifically name one or more examples of a legal constraint on their work implementing adaptive management. At the same time, we found that practitioners are generally optimistic about the potential for institutional reform.
Key words: adaptive management; Collaborative Adaptive Management Network; natural resource management; organizational change; practitioners


Adaptive management (AM) is an emerging trend among natural resource decision-makers, reflecting a willingness to test our assumptions about social-ecological systems (SESs) in order to adapt and learn. This approach has the potential to shift the current environmental governance paradigm by fostering a new relationship between environmental science and social institutions, a relationship that embraces uncertainty and possesses the flexibility necessary to incorporate that uncertainty into management actions involving natural systems. Examples of recent attempts to incorporate AM in the United States include the U.S. Department of Interior’s development of a technical guide for AM implementation (Williams et al. 2009), landowner based habitat conservation planning under the Endangered Species Act (Ruhl 2005), and the compensatory wetlands mitigation protection program under the Clean Water Act (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 2002).

Our research explores one element of the bridge between theory and practice: the experiences of AM practitioners in the field. Many, if not most, of these practitioners are trained in the natural sciences, and, not surprisingly, much of the research related to AM takes place within the disciplines of ecology, conservation biology, and other natural sciences. This scholarship is placing increasing emphasis on the natural world as a suite of complex systems and on an acknowledgement of the adaptive cycle as a basis for understanding the dynamics of ecosystems (Walters 2002). These nonequilibrium systems theories embrace the complexity, uncertainty, and instability associated with both social and ecological systems processes (Gunderson and Holling 2002, Folke et al. 2005). Adaptive management is seen as a key strategy for fostering resilience, and emerging from the literature are increasingly robust engagements of AM, both in terms of theoretical advancements (e.g., Lee 1999, Salafsky et al. 2002, McCarthy and Possingham 2007) and practical applications (e.g., Berkes and Seixas 2005, King and Brown 2006, Allan et al. 2008, Brugnach et al. 2008, Nie and Schultz 2012).

This new view of SESs is now being incorporated into federal agencies and other natural resource management arenas that are defined by legal and regulatory frameworks. The legal scholarship on AM that examines this trend reflects two major areas of emphasis. First, there is an acknowledgment that virtually all of the efforts to integrate AM strategies to date reflect attempts to fit AM within existing legal mandates and protocols. While existing management mandates are usually sufficiently vague to encompass AM approaches, “the disconnect between AM in practice and AM in law is quite palpable... No other principle of natural resources law has so deeply permeated the practice on the basis of so little mention in law” (Ruhl 2008:11-3). As a result, AM is being thrown like a blanket on top of existing authorizations and requirements, with little attention to how practitioners balance this new mandate in relation to other legal and institutional requirements. Critics of AM have argued that without more specific legal grounding, AM provides agencies with an unreasonable amount of discretion (Doremus 2002, Houck 2009). Similarly, AM proponents have cautioned against lax standards that would, in essence, create a situation in which agencies use it as “rhetorical cover for requests for blanket preauthorization to reverse or revise policies should the agency later decide to change its mind” (Karkkainen 2004:356).

The second shared observation among legal scholars is that current legal and regulatory requirements do not generally support the iterative processes required by AM (Thrower 2006, Ruhl 2008, Craig 2010). For example, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is the major federal law that requires agencies to take a “hard look” at the environmental impacts of proposed agency action. NEPA makes a number of assumptions that are at odds with AM, including the assumption that there is a single, final “agency action” rather than a series of iterative processes, and that resource managers already have the knowledge of natural systems needed to assess environmental impacts (Benson and Garmestani 2011). Several law review articles have highlighted the challenges associated with engaging in AM (Angelo 2009, Benson 2010a,b, Zellmer and Gunderson 2008, Susskind et al. 2010).

It therefore appears that although ecology tells us that collaboratively based, iterative processes are needed to promote flexibility and facilitate adaptation (e.g., Gunderson and Light 2006), legal scholars note that this stands in opposition to most legal requirements and processes, in which enforceable standards are viewed as preferable to open-ended guidance (Nie 2008). This disconnect has both practical and theoretical importance. From a practical point of view, AM methodologies are of limited value unless they can be employed within the highly complex and overlapping regulatory frameworks that often exist in developed countries such as the United States. From a theoretical perspective, experiments in applying AM within explicit legal and regulatory contexts could allow the refinement of AM models and methodologies.

Scholarship regarding how institutions facilitate and constrain successful employment of AM methodologies tends to emphasize the importance of polycentric governance, collaborative processes, the role of social learning, and issues of scale (Bodin et al. 2006, Stringer et al. 2006, Folke et al. 2007, Pahl-Wostl 2007, Pahl-Wostl et al. 2007, Brugnach et al. 2008, Raadgever et al. 2008). The subset of this literature that specifically addresses AM implementation in the United States emphasizes the need for a more explicit commitment to AM methodologies (Moir and Block 2001, Stankey et al. 2003, Benson 2010a,b). Jacobson et al. (2006) looked at barriers to AM implementation by surveying the 90 staff members of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission using a questionnaire that identified 47 potential barriers to the use of AM. Although legal and regulatory requirements were not listed explicitly, related issues regarding management flexibility and availability of agency resources were included among the categories on logistical and institutional barriers. Their survey revealed that logistical issues were the most problematic of all barriers, specifically citing lack of agency resources and the time-consuming nature of AM protocols (Jacobson et al. 2006). Similarly, Butler and Koontz (2005) surveyed 345 U.S. Forest Service managers regarding their experiences implementing the agency’s ecosystem management objectives, of which AM is one component (Grumbine 1994). Their results established that managers viewed AM as the most difficult element of ecosystem management to implement (Butler and Koontz 2005). Among the reasons for this, managers cited the significant institutional changes required, the immense costs of monitoring, and the lack of public and political support. One interviewee was quoted as stating: “Adaptive management happens, but is a reach for the agency. We don’t have all the mechanisms in place to do it well, and there are legal, logistical, contractual and social constraints” (Butler and Koontz 2005:146). Butler and Koontz’s (2005:148) conclusions emphasize that “continued attention and inquiry is needed to generate insights for academics and professionals involved in ecosystem management, from theory to practice.” Our research builds upon this work by asking questions specifically related to legal and institutional influences on AM implementation.


Our review of the relevant literature reveals the need to gain a better understanding of the impact of legal and institutional frameworks on AM implementation. By legal, we mean the statutory and regulatory mandates that both drive and influence many AM projects (e.g., species protection, environmental assessment compliance). By institutional, we mean other aspects of management design (e.g., funding priorities, monitoring protocols) that may not necessarily reflect specific legal requirements but are nevertheless an important part of the overall decision-making and management structure in which AM operates. Our research adds to the literature by investigating how AM practitioners experience the tension between the theoretical articulations of AM methodologies and the actual implementation of AM strategies within current regulatory requirements and institutional frameworks in the United States. Our research questions exploring this tension were: Do practitioners perceive legal and institutional barriers to AM? If so, what are they? What are practitioners’ perceptions regarding how AM methodologies are actually being implemented? The overarching hypothesis for our study was that many practitioners believe that current legal and institutional regimes for natural resource management in the United States do not adequately support the successful employment of AM procedures and protocols.

To test this hypothesis, we surveyed natural resource managers and other practitioners in the field who attended one or more Collaborative Adaptive Management Network (CAMNet) rendezvous from 2008 to 2011 (Appendix A). CAMNet is a nongovernmental organization formed in 2004 through a partnership between the Adaptive Management Practitioners Network and the Meridian Institute. This partnership was based on the belief that adaptive management and collaborative problem-solving are complementary tools and that often both are needed to address successfully complex natural resource management and restoration challenges. CAMNet fosters resolution of complex natural resource management problems through the practice of collaborative AM. We chose to survey CAMNet rendezvous participants as research subjects because they represent a cross-section of AM practitioners from a variety of professional roles and levels of experience (Figs. 1 and 2).

CAMNet’s signature event is the Annual Rendezvous, which brings together practitioners from across the United States and beyond to share lessons learned and advance the practice of collaborative AM. The survey was sent via email to the 144 participants who attended a CAMNet Rendezvous during 2007–2011. Each year, CAMNet hosts a rendezvous at a site where AM is being practiced. The first rendezvous focused on Rocky Mountain National Park and was held in Estes Park, Colorado (14.9% of respondents). The second meeting was in Homestead, Florida, in 2008 and focused on the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program (19.1%). The 2009 rendezvous was held in Kearney, Nebraska, and highlighted AM efforts in the Platte River Recovery and Implementation Program (25.5%). The 2010 rendezvous in Tucson, Arizona, highlighted the Las Ciénegas National Conservation Area Adaptive Management Strategy in Arizona (40.4%). Finally, the 2011 meeting in Keene, New Hampshire, (29.8%) featured a number of projects in the surrounding areas, including the Wildlands and Woodlands Initiative.

The electronic survey used enhances the anonymity of respondents (Hewson et al. 1996, Schmidt 1997). The survey design followed the electronic version of the “Total Design Method” of a four-wave mail survey (Dillman 2000). The survey questions solicited information regarding our research questions, following the methods of Mazmanian and Sabatier (1989), by asking respondents to indicate their perceptions on a rating scale from 0 (“very much agree”) to 4 (“very much disagree”). Respondents were also provided the option to expand on their answer to each question in a narrative format. As noted by Butler and Koontz (2005), although perceptual data have been used in numerous policy studies, including those in natural resources, they are inherently subjective. The survey’s reliability was enhanced to the greatest extent possible by carefully wording questions and assuring confidentiality of responses following Butler and Koontz’s (2005) methods. Validity for the survey was enhanced through pre-testing with a small sample, soliciting feedback, and making minor adjustments to the survey format and wording based on the feedback. The collected data were analyzed using the statistical software SYSTAT 11. Specifically, a series of correlational analyses were used for quantitative analyses. The survey of 144 participants yielded 48 responses, which is an acceptable response rate (33.34%) and an appropriate sample size for purposes of analysis.


The first section of the survey assessed the respondents’ demographic information and their involvement with AM to determine whether we were able to reach a cross-section of AM practitioners from a variety of professional roles and level of experience. The survey results suggest that this was the case; the respondents demonstrated diversity in terms of their level of experience, years of experience, geographical expertise, professional affiliations, and level of education (Fig. 1). Most respondents reported that they had experience with AM implementation. The level of involvement was categorized into little (only attended the CAMNet rendezvous), some (I am involved in projects that use AM), significant (I use AM in the field), and very significant (I have professional training in AM methods and engage in AM on a regular basis; Fig. 2).

Our first research question investigates practitioners’ perceptions of legal and institutional issues related to AM. We wanted to know whether practitioners felt hampered by legal and institutional constraints, and if they did, we wanted to know their suggestions for how to address and/or mitigate those constraints. We asked them seven questions along these lines. First, we asked respondents to evaluate the statement, “Laws and other administrative and regulatory requirements constrain efforts to engage in AM.” Of those surveyed, the overwhelming majority (74.4%) agreed. When asked to give an example, approximately the same number (73.2%) stated that they could provide an example of specific legal requirements that hamper AM. Examples included the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Magnuson Stevens Act, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (Table 1). A related question asked specifically whether existing legal mandates make it difficult to engage in AM practices because they require specific management outcomes. Participants largely agreed with this statement, with 32.6% and 23.9% responding “somewhat agree” and “very much agree”, respectively, and 23.9% responding “somewhat disagree”, 8.7% “very much disagree”, and 10.9% “not sure”.

Our next two questions related to potential conflicts between management priorities and the conditions that are required for AM to be successful (Salafsky et al. 2001). First, we asked practitioners to evaluate the statement, “In general, existing legal mandates place management objectives first and place secondary importance on gathering the necessary baseline information.” Most of the respondents agreed with this statement, with 36.2% responding “somewhat agree” and 27.7% “very much agree”. Interestingly, many of the respondents were “not sure” (23.4%), and, although a few (12.8%) selected “somewhat disagree”, none selected “strongly disagree”. Next, we asked whether they viewed management plans (such as Bureau of Land Management resource management plans) as having the flexibility necessary to engage in AM. There was a wide range of opinion on the issue of management plan flexibility; most of the respondents felt that the necessary flexibility does exist within management plans, with 37.5% responding “somewhat agree” and 18.8% “very much agree”. However, a significant number of respondents also fell into the “somewhat disagree” (20.8%) and “very much disagree” (14.6%) categories.

The final two questions related to legal and institutional constraints focused on possibilities for reform. When asked whether changes could be made in existing legal requirements to make AM more successful, most respondents selected either “somewhat agree” (25.5%) or “very much agree” (38.3%). Several were “not sure” (21.3%). When a follow-up question asked participants whether they could provide suggestions for specific changes to existing legal requirements that would facilitate AM, over half of the participants provided comments (discussed below).

Our second research question investigated practitioners’ perceptions regarding how effectively AM methodologies were actually put into practice in the field. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach for the application of AM, our survey reflects suggestions and approaches outlined by Salafsky et al. (2001) for AM implementation, which include gathering baseline data, developing a conceptual model of the system being managed, implementing a monitoring plan, analyzing the data, communicating results back to stakeholders, and using the results from monitoring to adapt and learn. We developed survey questions for each of these topics, emphasizing those elements that we felt would provide the most insight into how AM is actually being engaged. The first survey question related to stakeholder involvement and asked respondents to evaluate the statement, “In my experience, AM efforts involve efforts to engage stakeholders from all affected interests in the AM processes.” The overwhelming majority of the respondents believed that relevant stakeholders are involved in AM efforts, with 51.1% selecting “very much agree” and 28.9% “somewhat agree”.

The second set of questions related to the need to develop a conceptual model of the social and/or ecological system under adaptive management. We asked three questions along these lines, relating specifically to (1) whether managers take the necessary time to build a conceptual model of the management area before engaging in AM, (2) whether those models included both human and ecological systems, and (3) whether, in general, baseline information and/or data about the relevant system(s) are gathered before AM takes place. Respondents were split on the issue of whether the necessary time is taken to build a conceptual model of the management area before engaging in AM, with 17.0% selecting “very much disagree”, 25.5% “somewhat disagree”, 38.3% “somewhat agree”, 8.5% “very much agree”, and 10.6% “not sure”. On a more encouraging note, respondents generally agreed (31.1% “somewhat agree” and 33.3% “very much agree”) that when conceptual models are developed, they tend to include both human and ecological systems. One element of building a conceptual model is the investment in gathering baseline data before engaging in AM. While a large number agreed (43.8% “somewhat agree” and 22.9% “very much agree”) with the statement that this actually takes place, many were also in disagreement (25.0% “somewhat disagree” and 6.3% “very much disagree”).

With regard to monitoring, we asked two questions. First, we wanted to know whether practitioners felt that monitoring efforts were adequately funded. Their response was a strong no, with 53.2% selecting “strongly disagree” for the statement that monitoring efforts are adequately funded. An additional 19.1% selected “somewhat disagree”, and only 17% “somewhat agree” that funding is adequate. None of the respondents selected “very much agree”. When asked whether, once conducted, monitoring and assessment results are integrated into AM decision-making, the responses were slightly more positive, with 30.4% selecting “somewhat agree” and 23.9% “very much agree”. A strong number had the opinion that monitoring results were not actually incorporated back into decision-making (21.7% “somewhat disagree”, 15.2% “very much disagree”).

Finally, we asked practitioners to evaluate the statement, “In my experience, when AM experiments tell us something new, management actions are changed to reflect what is learned.” This question gets to the critical feedback loop required by AM. We wanted to know if, in practitioners’ experiences, management decisions actually reflect the new knowledge created. On this issue, the respondents were fairly split: less than half perceived that learning was incorporated into management actions (41.3% “somewhat agree”, 2.2% “very much agree”), and many perceived that learning was not incorporated (26.1% “somewhat disagree”, 13.0% “very much disagree”). Interestingly, a large number of respondents were “not sure” (17.4%).


Our survey results provide some interesting insights into practitioners’ perceptions of the legal requirements and institutional constraints that influence their work. Our results are based on the attitudes and opinions of a relatively sophisticated and experienced group with regard to their understanding of AM (Fig. 2). We were somewhat surprised to find that the survey results did not correlate well with any particular type of background or level of experience. Responses from federal agency participants, for example, did not differ significantly from those of private consultants, and responses from individuals with extensive experience with AM did not differ significantly from those with relatively little experience, etc. Based on this, we conclude that our survey results express opinions that are widely shared across various types of professional experience, current employment, and educational background.

The first observation to be made is that the survey results confirm our overarching hypothesis that practitioners feel hampered by legal and institutional constraints. Well over 70% of respondents believed that constraints existed, and many could specifically name one or more examples of a legal constraint on their implementation of AM (Table 1). Many of the narrative comments related to the Endangered Species Act (ESA; Table 2) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA; Table 3).

Participants largely agreed that one current impediment to AM is that legal requirements often require specific management outcomes. Interestingly, however, their responses also indicated optimism with regard to the potential for improvement. Respondents’ perceptions of existing legal barriers as constraints on AM were positively correlated such that those who reported that existing legal mandates make it difficult to engage in AM practices because they require specific management outcomes (Question 18) also reported that changes could be made in existing legal requirements to make AM more successful (Question 16; R = 0.550, P < 0.05; Fig. 3). Data were aggregated to “agree” and “disagree” for conceptualization: 76% of the respondents agreed that there are legal barriers, of which 56% of the respondents also agreed that such legal constraints could be changed. In other words, a significant number of respondents were hopeful that reforms could be put in place to improve conditions for AM implementation. These data reinforce the idea that, while specific management outcomes or directives (e.g., recovery of a specific species) are not an AM impediment per se, the challenge lies in accommodating a sometimes narrow management focus while also maintaining the necessarily flexibility to engage in AM.

A second observation relates to the correlation between current management priorities and opportunities for legal reform. When asking about potential conflicts between management priorities, flexibility, and other conditions necessary to support AM (e.g., baseline data collection) we found a range of opinion. Most of those who provided written comments in response to these issues noted that although flexibility might exist on paper, this does not always translate into flexibility in practice. For example, one respondent noted, “I think most management plans would allow for more flexibility than managers might recognize, particularly if managers work to increase ‘social license’ for flexible actions by developing shared goals with their public constituents.” Again, however, there was a note of optimism. Respondents’ perceptions of existing legal constraints (Question 18) were positively correlated such that those who reported that existing legal mandates place management objectives first and place secondary importance on gathering the necessary baseline information also reported that changes could be made in existing legal requirements to make AM more successful (Question 10; R = 0.425, P < 0.05; Fig. 4). Data were aggregated to “agree” and “disagree” for conceptualization: 72% of the respondents agreed that there are existing legal constraints; of these, 53% also agreed that such legal constraints could be changed. In other words, there is a strong perception that legal reforms can be made to make AM more successful, and several respondents provided specific examples (Table 4). For the most part, however, their responses evidenced that many AM practitioners are frustrated with the status quo.

The second set of observations relates to practitioners’ perceptions regarding how well AM methodologies are actually being engaged in the field. Interestingly, it appears that several of the participants struggled with this distinction. The survey did not ask respondents what ought to happen but rather what they perceive is happening (based on their own experience), and several of the narrative comments to our questions suggested that the respondents wanted to respond in terms of theory rather than practice. For example when asked, “Please evaluate the following statement: Monitoring and assessment results are integrated into AM decision-making”, we received narrative comments such as, “Perhaps ‘should’ should be used instead of ‘are’”, and “When AM decision-making is done properly, yes.” For this reason, we are a bit less certain how reliable these answers are. For purposes of this analysis, we are working from the assumption that respondents answered the question as it was presented to them rather than how they wished it to be worded or phrased.

In terms of stakeholder involvement, we were encouraged to find that an overwhelming majority of the respondents believed that relevant stakeholders were involved in the AM processes in which they were engaged. This is perhaps not surprising given that CAMNet’s mission statement states that the organization “is dedicated to the proposition that AM that involves active stakeholder collaboration is the preferred paradigm for resolving many complex natural resource management problems” (Collaborative Adaptive Management Network,

Related to the need to develop a conceptual model of the adaptively managed SES, we found that while most agreed that conceptual models tend to include both human and ecological systems, respondents were split on the issue of whether the necessary time is taken to build a conceptual model of the management area before engaging in AM. Respondents were also relatively split on the issue of whether conceptual models reflect an investment in gathering baseline data before engaging in AM. When looking at the responses related to conceptual modeling in combination, we found that 31% of the respondents indicated that all three elements are currently met (Questions 6, 7, and 10; Fig. 5). This indicates a need for more careful employment of AM methodologies in this regard, and perhaps a need for better AM training with regard to the use and utility of conceptual models.

Perhaps the strongest response we received from the survey related to the need for adequate monitoring to implement AM properly. Practitioners strongly feel that monitoring efforts related to AM are not adequately funded. They were slightly more positive with regard to the incorporation of monitoring and assessment results, but respondents were fairly split on the issue. Comments also indicated frustration with the quality of monitoring efforts. For example, one respondent noted, “Most monitoring I see is a half-way measure. It is expensive and inefficient, while not being controlled enough to have viable results... I see very little evidence that most monitoring is very useful in meeting its stated goal of informing the process.”

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, respondents’ perceptions of existing legal constraints (Question 18) were negatively correlated such that those who reported that laws and other administrative and regulatory requirements constrain efforts to engage in AM also reported that monitoring is not adequately funded for AM efforts (Question 13; R = -0.460, P < 0.05). Data were aggregated to “agree” and “disagree” for conceptualization (Fig. 6): 78% of the respondents agreed there are existing legal constraints on AM; of these, 61% felt that monitoring is not adequately funded. While correlation does not necessarily indicate causation, this suggests that perhaps one of the most significant institutional barriers to effective AM implementation is adequate funding for monitoring. While we were curious about whether survey responses might correlate more strongly by rendezvous location (e.g., did practitioners in the Everglades feel more adequately funded than those in Tucson?), we did not find any statistically significant correlations between survey responses and rendezvous locations for any of the survey questions, indicating that this opinion is widely shared.

Finally, respondents were fairly split on the issue of whether new information gathered from monitoring was actually incorporated into decision-making, i.e., the critical feedback loop required by AM. Many of the narrative comments associated with this survey question emphasized the long lag time between knowledge and action: e.g., “perhaps eventually, but not in a timely manner” and “many times on big systems it takes a little while to get changes made”. In sum, there is a fair amount of optimism among practitioners engaging in AM in the field. While practitioners agree that current legal and institutional constraints hamper AM efforts, particularly adequate funding to engage in necessary monitoring, they also believe that institutions will change to make AM more successful.


In the field, the actual practice of AM is often constrained and complicated by the legal and institutional regimes in which it takes place. The responses from practitioners reinforce the observations made by Ruhl and Fischman (2010:426) that what often occurs in practice is not true AM but what they call AM “lite,” which they describe as “a watered-down version of the theory that resembles ad hoc contingency planning more than it does planned ‘learning while doing’.” Based on our practitioner survey and subsequent analysis, however, there are a number of observations to be made with regard to how AM implementation may be improved. First, many practitioners are frustrated with the current level of legal and institutional support for AM. They remain optimistic, however, and have several ideas for both general and specific improvements. The ESA and NEPA stand out as specific laws that warrant careful attention. For example, one practitioner suggested:
Ways of implementing NEPA differently include investing more time at the beginning of a NEPA process to involve stakeholders in developing both goals and alternative actions. A more collaborative process is likely to yield a wider range of alternatives and more social license for flexibility in actions, more emphasis on goals and outcomes, and design of explicit processes for modifying actions to better achieve desired outcomes.
This reflects suggestions made in relevant scholarship (e.g., Thrower 2006, Benson and Garmestani 2011), but is still not widely put into practice. Although the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ; the main agency responsible for interpreting NEPA’s requirements) commissioned a taskforce to provide recommendations for modernizing NEPA implementation along similar lines in 2003, it appears that practitioners perceive that there is still much room for improvement in the field.

In terms of the ESA, practitioners’ experience the tension between management goals and legal/institutional flexibility. It is important to acknowledge that management goals and AM are not mutually exclusive. In fact, having goals is critical to successful AM. The problem arises when the goals themselves (here, the recovery of a specific species) narrow an agency’s focus and limit management flexibility (Doremus 2002, Benson 2012). At the same time, species-driven situations are often in need of AM strategies. As one practitioner observed with regard to the ESA, “Insertion of adaptive management would strengthen that statute because so much uncertainty is wrapped up in threatened and endangered species conservation.”

This closely relates to the second point involving the importance of developing a useful conceptual model of the SES being managed. Requiring a specific management outcome is not inherently incompatible with the importance of gathering the necessary baseline data. However, both the pace of decision-making and funding constraints can force agencies to design AM programs without sufficient data to develop a workable conceptual model. They can also constrain the degree to which practitioners are able to engage in experimentation. When experimentation does happen, adequate data collection and monitoring are essential. Monitoring is a key element that practitioners find to be lacking adequate institutional support. One practitioner explained, “The cost of monitoring is often one of the first parts of the budget to get cut when funds are limited.” Most natural resource legal regimes, including NEPA, do not explicitly require monitoring (Benson and Garmestani 2011).

The absence of legal requirements for monitoring provides an example of the distinction between legal and institutional regimes. In the absence of an enforceable mandate, monitoring is vulnerable not only to budgetary constraints but also to protocol inconsistencies that limit the usefulness of the data. As one practitioner points out:
There is often a more fundamental problem [than] that most monitoring is ineffective. Much of it is research without replication, and unreplicated studies are still often just bad science. One still usually needs some sort of control factor or you have no idea of that you are looking at. Often a few plots done well is better. Most monitoring I see is a half-way measure. It is expensive and inefficient, while not being controlled enough to have viable results. I suspect very often there should either be repeated photo, or something bordering on a real experiment with controls and replicates. I see very little evidence that most monitoring is very useful in meeting its stated goal of informing the process.
Commitment for monitoring is essential and is a major area in which laws and institutions can improve (Sayre et al. 2013). The CEQ has provided a good first step related to the inclusion of AM into the NEPA cycle, but this could (as one practitioner suggested) be taken further to frame NEPA alternatives as competing hypotheses that would be tested through AM. The CEQ could also create a requirement for monitoring under NEPA and identify protocols and procedures that would assist AM and provide a basis for more consistent training in AM (Haugrud 2009).

Perhaps one of the most important changes needed is institutional support for experimentation that does not provide immediate successful outcomes and positive results. We appreciated one practitioner’s simple suggestion that institutions need to “allow managers the opportunity to be wrong.” Within the context in which most AM projects operate, continued funding and institutional and stakeholder support are often contingent on immediate results. However, AM takes time, and pressuring agencies and consultants to demonstrate “success” on a particular schedule or funding cycle makes it difficult to do AM well.

In General Design Principles for Resilience and Adaptive Capacity in Legal Systems: Applications to Climate Change Adaptation Law, J. B. Ruhl (2011) provides some suggestions for designing legal systems or climate change adaptation strategies that are broadly applicable to AM. Noting the extent to which this design effort will require a significant departure from the status quo, Ruhl (2011) emphasizes how the current legal system is preoccupied with certainty and finality and the difficulty that many federal agencies are having in incorporating AM. Ruhl (2011) focuses on strategies for building adaptive capacity within the legal system. He identifies the need to move away from the current level of front-end investment in NEPA and other processes that are inherently built on assumptions of predictability and to embrace strategies that include less emphasis on command-and-control and have more encouragement for collaborative, poly-centric, and adaptive models of governance.

While our research provides insight into practitioners’ perceptions of AM implementation in the United States, it has also identified some potentially productive areas for further research. First, the survey of CAMNet rendezvous participants had the strength of cutting across many different project areas and institutional settings. At the same time, the result was a generalized set of perceptions, thereby limiting the capacity for identifying more specific observations and recommendations for legal and institutional reform. A more targeted survey would have the opportunity to provide a more refined analysis. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, for example, recently completed a review of 16 of its major river restoration programs, including the social and institutional aspects of restoration such as AM (U.S. Department of the Interior 2011). If we used our survey to gather data from participants directly involved in these efforts, the instrument could be designed to investigate specific legal and institutional issues specific to U.S. Bureau of Reclamation such as their funding mechanisms, monitoring protocols, NEPA guidance, etc.

Second, there is a need to investigate further the challenges and opportunities related to current approaches for integrating monitoring into AM implementation. Our research reveals that monitoring is perceived to be the weakest link in current efforts to engage successfully in AM. Further research directly related to monitoring could be directed toward identifying specific challenges, including funding mechanisms, to provide suggestions for reforms with the potential to improve AM implementation.


Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a response, follow this link. To read responses already accepted, follow this link.


We thank the Collaborative Adaptive Management Network for its support in the design and publication of this research, Imogen Ainsworth for editorial assistance, and anonymous reviewers for helpful suggestions.


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Address of Correspondent:
Melinda Harm Benson
MSC01 1110
1 University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, NM 87131-0001 United States
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