Adaptive Management of Social-Ecological Systems: The Path Forward

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht (outside the USA) 2015
Craig R. Allen and Ahjond S. Garmestani (eds.)Adaptive Management of Social-Ecological Systems10.1007/978-94-017-9682-8_14

14. Adaptive Management of Social-Ecological Systems: The Path Forward

Ahjond S. Garmestani  and Craig R. Allen 

Office of Research and Development, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 26 W. Martin Luther King Drive, 45268 Cincinnati, OH, USA

U.S. Geological Survey, Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 68583 Lincoln, NE, USA



Ahjond S. Garmestani (Corresponding author)


Craig R. Allen

Adaptive managementSocial-Ecological systemsUncertaintyResilienceNatural resource management


Adaptive management is derived from resilience theory, and originally was developed as a way to explore the resilience of ecosystems without exceeding the resilience of the system of interest (Chap. 2, Holling 1973). Ecosystems are characterized by complexity and in most cases there is basic uncertainty regarding their dynamics. Uncertainty in the response of linked social-ecological systems to management interventions necessitates that an adaptive approach be utilized (Chap. 8, Bown et al. 2013). Adaptive management explicitly tests predictions against observations, which allows for iterative recalibration of the management process at pre-determined decision points as learning occurs (Williams 2011). This learning process allows for management actions to progress as uncertainty is reduced over time (Williams 2011). Adaptive management is not a panacea, but can be a powerful tool for environmental management when applied to appropriate problems in social-ecological systems.

This book is intended to present the state of the art of adaptive management by providing a historical perspective (Chaps. 2 and 3), highlighting bridges and barriers to its implementation (Chaps. 4, 10 and 11), and illuminating the evolution of adaptive management since its development over the past 4 decades (Chaps. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 12 and 13). However, it is not prescriptive, and readers interested in “how to” should delve into the resources cited in chapter references. Here we discuss some of the recent themes recurring in the adaptive management literature, and discuss the different contexts of adaptive co-management, adaptive governance and resilience-based governance.

Adaptive Management: The Present and the Future


Adaptive management has tremendous traction in the academic literature, demonstrating the persistence of the methodology (Westgate et al. 2013). There are several factors that act as “bridges” for successful adaptive management. These factors include: collaboration (Chap. 10, Reever Morghan et al. 2006, Stringer et al. 2006, Armitage et al. 2009, Johnson 2011, Moore et al. 2011, Williams 2011, Porzecanski et al. 2012, Susskind et al. 2012, Caves et al. 2013, Greig et al. 2013, LoSchiavo et al. 2013, Pratt Miles 2013, Westgate et al. 2013), funding (Chap. 4, Chap. 10, Armitage et al. 2009, Moore et al. 2011, Smith 2011, Caves et al. 2013, Greig et al. 2013, LoSchiavo et al. 2013, Rist et al. 2013, Westgate et al. 2013), clear objectives (Chap. 3, Chap. 5, Chap. 10, Moore et al. 2011, Williams 2011, Porzecanski et al. 2012, Susskind et al. 2012, Caves et al. 2013, Greig et al. 2013, LoSchiavo et al. 2013, Pratt Miles 2013), leadership (Chap. 3, Chap. 7, Chap. 10, Walters 2007, Munaretto and Huitema 2012, Caves et al. 2013, Greig et al. 2013), presence of intermediaries (Chap. 7, Stringer et al. 2006, Johnson 2011, Munaretto and Huitema 2012, Greig et al. 2013, Monroe et al. 2013, Pratt Miles 2013), appropriate scale of project (Chap. 10, Reever Morghan et al. 2006, Stringer et al. 2006), and a favorable institutional, policy and social environment (Chap. 10, Stringer et al. 2006, Armitage et al. 2009, Moore et al. 2011, Smith 2011, Porzecanski et al. 2012, Susskind et al. 2012, Caves et al. 2013, Greig et al. 2013, LoSchiavo et al. 2013). Some potential “barriers” to adaptive management are the lack of funding for project implementation and monitoring, and shifts in management policies, personnel and leadership (Conclusion, Jacobson et al. 2006, Westgate et al. 2013). In many cases where adaptive management was unsuccessful, the conditions necessary for success did not exist, whether those factors (and the interaction of those factors) are institutional, organizational or social (Chap. 3, Porzecanski et al. 2012). In some cases, adaptive assessments and experimentation have led to innovative environmental management and organizational learning (Chap. 3). Adaptive management isn’t appropriate where there is little uncertainty and little controllability, thus excluding a large range of potential applications. Rather, other methods (e.g., scenario planning, building resilience and maximum sustained yield) may be better fits for the environmental problem to be managed (see Allen et al. 2011) where controllability is weak (i.e., management is largely not possible) or uncertainty is low.

In the United States the current legal framework is focused upon finality of process (e.g., National Environmental Policy Act), and not designed to accommodate iterative mechanisms, which are essential for adaptive management (Chap. 4, Benson and Garmestani 2011). The current focus upon finality in American law results from it being crafted around outdated scientific understanding about the dynamics of social-ecological systems (Garmestani et al. 2013). In essence, American law was built upon the understanding at the time that the world was characterized by a “balance of nature”, which allowed natural resource managers to have a good sense about the manner in which the natural world will behave in the future (Garmestani et al. 2013). Thus, adaptive management is difficult to implement within the scope of current law . In a recent study, a majority of practitioners reported that implementation of adaptive management was hampered by legal constraints (Benson and Stone 2013). For example, most laws in the United States do not explicitly require monitoring, an essential component of adaptive management, and the lack of a regulatory “home” for adaptive management means agencies aren’t typically bound by its requirements (Benson and Garmestani 2011). This means that adaptive management, as it is currently practiced in many of the most visible applications does not possess the legal grounding necessary for enforceability , which is essential to ensuring that the methodology is implemented as it was intended (Chap. 4, Holling 1978, Benson and Garmestani 2011). In addition, several legal scholars have concluded that conducting adaptive management is incompatible with current administrative law, and thus not possible without reform (Ruhl 1998, Karkkainen 2005, Garmestani et al. 2009).


Adaptive management remains underutilized and poorly understood. A large part of this problem can be traced to its implementation through top-down authority or its highly visible but poorly functioning applications to large problems not well-suited to adaptive management purposes. An example of the latter case is the application of adaptive management to large river systems where endangered species recovery is the goal. In such cases, replicated experimentation is impossible and controllability is low. Here, structured decision making , which is closely related to adaptive management, is more appropriate. Top-down control is a problem in many cases where there are mandates to apply adaptive management, for example in some federal agencies, but with little guidance on implementation in the field. Adaptive management’s promise is for a subset of mesoscale environmental problems . These mesoscales—larger and longer than typical graduate student-driven academic research but smaller and shorter than continental watersheds or most climate-driven change—remain poorly understood, but are amenable to replicated experimental manipulations that can yield tangible results in reasonable time frames. Examples include projects such as testing of green infrastructure impacts on water quality and quantity in urban settings, techniques for invasive species removal, and methods of ecological restoration.

Certainly, there is room for improvement in the process of adaptive management. Integrating adaptive management with law will likely require some reforms (see Chap. 4). For example, Benson and Garmestani (2011

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