Adaptive Management


Experimentation to learn more about the operation of complex systems is the essential feature associated with adaptive management. Adaptive management has the attributes of being flexible, encouraging public input, and monitoring the results of actions for the purpose of adjusting plans and trying new or revised approaches.

Holling and several colleagues developed adaptive management at the University of British Columbia's Institute of Resource Ecology in the late 1960s. "The first exercise in adaptive management was the Gulf Island Recreation Land Simulation (GIRLS) study in 1968 (Gunderson et al. 1995:490). Adaptive management reached the scientific literature in C.S. Holling's book, Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems, published in 1978. The emphasis of the Holling approach is to experiment to learn the boundaries of natural systems. Holling and his colleagues worked with resource managers in British Columbia on a number of management experiments and public participation workshops, testing the process.

Walters (1986:8) outlined the adaptive management as beginning "with the central tenent that management involves a continual learning process that cannot conveniently be separated into functions like research' and ongoing regulatory activities,' and probably never converges to a state of blissful equilibrium involving full knowledge and optimum productivity." Walters (1986:9) saw the value of adaptive management as questioning some of the basic management assumptions. He characterized adaptive management as the process of

Adaptive management became an important concept in U.S. resource management when Lee introduced it to the Northwest Power Planning Council in 1984. Lee learned about adaptive management from Randall Peterman, who in February 1984 gave a talk about experimental management (Halbert 1991:138). Lee (1993) uses the metaphor of compass and gyroscope to emphasize the process scientific analysis and civic participation in adaptive management. Compass and gyroscope integrate science and democracy, in which science, "linked to human purpose is a compass, a way to gauge directions when sailing beyond the maps;" and democracy, "a way to maintain our bearing through turbulent seas," is the gyroscope (Lee 1993:6). The compass, grounded in the scientific method, warns when the direction is off course, while the bounded conflict of the democratic process lends stability when humans encounter turbulence in their relations with nature. Subsequently, different forms of adaptive management have become part of the Northwest Forest Plan, the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds, the Oregon Department of Forestry Plan to manage state forests, and many other resource planning processes.

Bormann et al. (1995) proposed an adaptive management process consisting of four phases--plan, act, monitor, and evaluate. The Northwest Forest Plan is the first large-scale regional application of adaptive management in forestry (Bormann et al. 1998:17). It established ten adaptive management areas, but the Record of Decision directed that adaptive management be applied on all forest lands, not just the adaptive management areas (Bormann et al. 1998:19). The Northwest Forest Plan set in motion an evolving process for managers, scientists, and citizens to work together to manage ecosystems to achieve societal goals.

The Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds calls for "active adaptive management." Active adaptive management is a "process of testing alternative hypotheses through management action, learning from experience, and making appropriate change to policy and management practice" (Oregon Plan). Key to active adaptive management is testing alternative practices. In its use of adaptive management, the Oregon Department of Forestry sees a three stage process of planning, action, and monitoring.

As the use of adaptive management has become more widespread and diverse in meaning, Holling and his colleagues have referred to adaptive management as adaptive environmental assessment and management (AEAM). Often people think of adaptive management as "learning by doing," but this misses the essential goal of needing to experiment with complex systems to learn from them. Carl Walters (1997) critiques some of the issues associated with the experiments that are part of adaptive management.

Definitions, Theory, Method

"Adaptive management is an inductive approach, relying on comparative studies that blend ecological theories with observation and with the design of planned interventions in nature and with the understanding of human response processes" (Gunderson, Holling, and Light, 1995, p. 491 in Barriers and Bridges)

An adaptive management system has two elements: a monitoring system to measure key indicators and the current status of things, and a response system that enables modifying key indicators. (Adapted from Ray Hilborn and John Sibert, Marine Policy, April 1988:115-116.)

Three streams:

Theory: "Resilience and stability of ecosytems," paper by Holling about 1970. He worked with Carl Walters in the development. Walters was excellent at seeing critical points.

Method: Computer modeling in workshops conducted by Holling and Walters out of the Institute for Animal Resource Ecology at the University of British Columbia.

Problem: The spruce budworm and salmon on the West Coast served as the examples for development of the cocepts.

Basic Assumptions:

  1. knowledge will never be adequate
  2. many questions can only be answered by experience and experiment
  3. knowledge does not accumulate, it gets discarded
  4. analyses get simplified
  5. nothing is certain
  6. much of what we know is wrong, we just don't know what


  1. identify key indicators, what do you want to learn from the system, what are the key elements and relationships?
  2. bound the system
  3. represent current understanding of the system
  4. represent the uncertainties
  5. design policies to probe for better understanding

Adapted from Carl Walters, Adaptive Management of Renewable Resources, 1986.


Four key books:

  1. Adaptive Environmental Assessment and Management. 1978. C.S. Holling
  2. Adaptive Resource Management. 1986. Carl Walters
  3. Compass and Gyroscope. 1993. Kai N. Lee
  4. Barriers and Bridges to Renewal of Ecosystems and Institutions. 1995. Lance Gunderson, C.S. Holling, and Stephen S. Light


Bernard T. Bormann, Patrick G. Cunningham, Martha H. Brookes, Van W. Manning, and Michael W. Collopy, 1994, Adaptive Ecosystem Management in the Pacific Northwest, Pacific Northwest Research Station, General Technical Report PNW-GTR-341, Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Further development of the adaptive management process outlined in FEMAT.

FEMAT (Forest Ecosystem Management Assessment Team), 1993, "Adaptive Management," pp. VIII-1 to VIII-54, In Forest Ecosystem Management: An Ecological, Economic, and Social Assessment. Portland, Inter-agency Working Group. Summarizes the adaptive management approach recommended for the FEMAT process for forests of Western Oregon.

"Point of View, Kai Lee," pp. 16-24, by Dulcy Mahar, In Northwest Energy News, September/October 1990. Discusses Kai Lee's role in bringing adaptive management to the Northwest Power Planning Council.

"Objectives, Constraints, and Problem Bounding," pp. 13- 41, In Adaptive Management of Renewable Resources, Carl Walters (1986).

"Challenges in Adaptive Management of Riparan and Coastal Ecosystems," Conservation Ecology [online] 2:1, Carl Walters (1997).

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