Making Good Use of Adaptive Management

by Yee Huang

April 12, 2011

Today CPR releases Making Good Use of Adaptive Management, a white paper explaining the basic principles of adaptive management and highlighting best practices for implementing and applying it to natural resources management. 

Over the last two decades, natural resource scientists, managers, and policymakers have employed adaptive management of land and natural resources. The approach calls for resource managers to design management actions as structured and iterative scientific experiments. Resource managers monitor the results of a particular experiment and then adjust future management actions on the basis of what the experiment reveals, repeating the cycle to achieve the environmental objectives.

Adaptive management is particularly useful in managing a dynamic ecosystem or resource that is not well understood. It explicitly recognizes the inherent uncertainty that complicates natural resources management and provides a directed process for filling information gaps and addressing uncertainty. 

Despite the appeal of adaptive management, few documented instances of its successful use actually exist. Funding structures that account only for annual budgets and agency cultures that discourage experimentation are often obstacles to implementing adaptive management. When poorly designed and haphazardly applied, it can also provide cover for delayed action or allow an agency to avoid politically controversial limits on economic activity. 

Adaptive management is characterized by several key elements:

  • Explicitly stated goals and measurable indicators of progress toward those goals;
  • Explicit acknowledgment and identification of risks and key uncertainties that management decisions will address;
  • An iterative approach to decision-making with opportunities to adjust decisions in light of subsequent learning and knowledge;
  • Systematic monitoring and assessment of outcomes and impacts of management decisions;
  • Feedback loops that incorporate the lessons and knowledge gained from monitoring and assessing management decisions; and
  • An overarching goal to reduce uncertainty over time. 

Adaptive management is not the appropriate management strategy in every context. For example, if a natural resources problem involves only one decision point, produces an irreversible outcome, or excludes the future possibility of changing the decision, adaptive management is inappropriate. A policy maker or natural resources manager must ensure that adaptive management is the appropriate approach for a given resource and then must design management strategies to ensure accountability and enforceability. The strategies should promote directed learning about the resource that is then fed back into future management strategies. 

CPR’s new white paper provides practical guidance for applying adaptive management in the real world. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state natural resources agencies in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have applied adaptive management strategies to the effort to restore the water quality of the Bay and its tributaries. The concept was a central part of President Obama’s 2009 Chesapeake Bay Restoration and Protection Executive Order. More recently, U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA) introduced H.R. 258, the Chesapeake Bay Accountability and Recovery Act of 2011, which would require EPA to develop and implement an adaptive management plan for restoration activities in the Bay watershed. 

CPR’s white paper provides a useful framework for assessing Representative Wittman’s bill. First, adaptive management is most likely a good fit for Bay restoration efforts. Although for decades scientists have studied the impacts of nutrient pollutants on the water quality of the Bay and its tributaries, complex ecosystem interactions prevent scientists from predicting the exact ecological response of a given pollutant control measure. In addition, the impact of climate change on the Bay—and indeed all ecosystems—creates extraordinary uncertainty that adaptive management can help address while reducing the damage from pollutants through specifically designed experiments.  These information gaps in the Bay translate into good prospects for learning under the adaptive management process. 

Overall, the plan mandated by H.R. 258 contains many of the key elements of adaptive management. The bill requires “definition of specific and measurable objectives to improve water quality, habitat, and fisheries” and “monitoring, modeling, experimentation, and other research and evaluation practices.” The bill also requires the EPA to prioritize the restoration activities “to which adaptive management shall be applied,” an implicit acknowledgment that it is not appropriate for all restoration activities. The bill also requires EPA to update the plan every three years and to submit an annual report to Congress, promoting accountability and creating specific deadlines for reevaluating the management strategy. 

To better follow best practices for adaptive management, the bill should explicitly recognize the risks and uncertainties in Bay restoration that adaptive management will address. The bill should also commit long-term funding to implement adaptive management actions. A rigorous and well-structured adaptive management program necessarily involves significant monitoring and assessment costs. Adjustments take time, and the success of adaptive management may be limited if the EPA must constantly scramble for funds in a contentious political environment. Ultimately, adaptive management in the Bay context and elsewhere requires a measure of political independence that cannot exist without stable funding for the long-term nature of management actions. The Chesapeake Bay is an appropriate context for use of adaptive management, and Representative Wittman’s bill represents a promising legislative framework for mandating it. 

The white paper Making Good Use of Adaptive Management was written by CPR Member Scholars Holly Doremus, William L. Andreen, Alejandro Camacho, Daniel A. Farber, Robert L. Glicksman, Dale Goble, Bradley C. Karkkainen, Daniel Rohlf, A. Dan Tarlock, and Sandra B. Zellmer, and CPR Executive Director Shana Jones and myself.

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