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Adaptive Management

Adaptive management is defined as "a process for implementing policy decisions as an ongoing activity that requires monitoring and adjustment. Adaptive management applies scientific principles and methods to improve resource management incrementally as managers learn from experience and as new scientific findings and social changes demand." The theory and practice of adaptive management are based on work over the last two decades of Walters (1986), Holling (1978), and Lee (1993).

One of the fundamental tenets of adaptive management is that ecosystems and people are unpredictable as they evolve together. Ecosystems change as do the people that attempt to understand and manage them. In addition, the understanding of ecosystem behavior is imperfect, and managers will never be able to completely predict responses to management activities.

Adaptive management encompasses both deliberate experimentation to gain new knowledge (active adaptive management) as well as the ongoing process of using monitoring and inventory information to assess the effects of management actions on ecosystem health (passive adaptive management).

Active adaptive management is a departure from traditional management in that it views management actions as experiments from which to learn. Implementing adaptive management experiments involves being explicit about expected outcomes, designing methods to measure responses, collecting and analyzing information to compare expectations to actual outcomes, learning from the comparisons, and changing actions and plans accordingly (USDA Forest Service 1995). Collaboration with research is essential to provide the expertise on designing adaptive management programs so that they can be monitored and evaluated.

Passive adaptive management requires monitoring and evaluation of project activities, as well as some aspects of management experiments. The monitoring must be statistically sound and scientifically credible, particularly for effectiveness and validation monitoring.

In 1993, the Forest Service, Southwestern Region, adopted the Forest Health Restoration Initiative based on adaptive managment principles and practices (USDA Forest Service 1993). This program seeks to address forest ecosystem health by increasing public awareness, gaining agency and public support, and beginning the work of ecosystem restoration.

The human dimension of adaptive management was further addressed in a 1994 Forest Service report. This report states that ecosystem management must include consideration of the physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, social, cultural, and economic well being of people and communities within ecosystem capabilities. The report further observes that managerial decisions are in reality moral rather than technical judgments because they accommodate some people's values and not others.

The Southwestern Region Leadership Team in partnership with the Rocky Mountain Station requested a detailed assessment of forest ecosystem health as an extension of the Forest Health Restoration Initiative. The Western Forest Health Initiative, announced in 1994, recommended development of regional assessments to describe the existing health of all Western forests.


Carr, D.S. 1995. Human dimensions in ecosystem management: a USDA Forest Service perspective, in Chavez, D.J., tech. coord. Proceedings 2nd symposium on social aspects and recreation research; 1994 February 23-25; San Diego, CA. General Technical Report PSW–156. Albany, CA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Forest and Range Experiment Station.

Dahm, C. W. and B. W. Geils, technical editors. 1997. An assessment of forest ecosystem health in the Southwest. USDA Forest Service General Technical Report RM-GTR-295. Online at 4/21/03.

Holling, C.S. 1978. Adaptive environmental assessment and management. New York: John Wiley and Sons. 377 p.

Lee, K.N. 1993. Compass and gyroscope: integrating science and politics for the environment. Washington, DC: Island Press. 243 p.

Murray, Carol and D. Marmorek. 2003. Adaptive management and ecological restoration. Pages 417-428 in Friederici, Peter, ed. 2003. Ecological Restoration of Southwestern Ponderosa Pine Forests : A Sourcebook for Research and Application. Washington, D.C. Island Press, 544 p. Adaptive Management is not haphazard learning from past mistakes, but rather careful testing of particular hypotheses through experimental treatments.

USDA Forest Service. 1993b. Forest Health Restoration Initiative. Albuquerque, NM: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Southwestern Region. 19 p.

USDA Forest Service. 1994. The human dimension in sustainable ecosystem management: a management philosophy. Albuquerque, NM: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Southwestern Region.

USDA Forest Service. 1995. Final environmental impact statement for amendment of forest plans. Albuquerque, NM: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Southwestern Region. 262 p.

Walters, C.J. 1986. Adaptive management of renewable resources. New York: MacMillan.

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