Practical Resilience: Building Networks of Adaptive Management

© 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_11

11. Practical Resilience: Building Networks of Adaptive Management

Jim Berkley  and Lance Gunderson 

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1595 Wynkoop Street, EPR-EP, 80203 Denver, CO, USA

Department of Environmental Sciences, Emory University, 524 Mathematics and Science Center, 400 Dowman Drive, 30322 Atlanta, GA, USA



Jim Berkley (Corresponding author)


Lance Gunderson

ResilienceAdaptive managementUncertaintyOrganizationsEnvironmental management


Holling (1973) proposed the word resilience as an alternative paradigm to explain abrupt changes in ecosystem structure and function. In his seminal paper, he questioned deeply held assumptions that relationships among key variables in an ecosystem were not only stationary and persistent, but that the resulting dynamics were predictable. He also suggested that ecosystems were adaptable in the face of changing external influences, due to shifting relationships among state variables and parameters in ways that allowed for persistence over time. The key conceptual breakthrough of this work, however, was the proposition that even though many systems could be defined in terms of stable configurations (both structure and functions) that absorb external disturbances , a wide range of systems could flip or rapidly transition into alternative configurations. Hence ecological resilience was used to describe ‘far from equilibrium behavior’ and the processes that mediate transitions among multiple configurations or stable states (Holling 1973). The past forty years has resulted in numerous studies that, have documented alternative states and transitional dynamics in a wide range of ecological systems (Gunderson and Pritchard 2002, Folke et al. 2004). Additionally, the practical implications of such non-linear dynamics in ecosystems for ecosystem management have been realized (Gunderson 1999, Chapin et al. 2009), especially for adaptive management.

The processes of adaptive management as described by Holling (1978), Walters (1986), and others, including chapters of this book, are conceptually rooted in theories of ecological resilience (Holling 1973). The most overt linkage is the contribution of C.S. Holling to both the concepts of resilience and the development of adaptive management. At least three other manifestations of how the theory influences practice include: (a) the uncertain and surprising nature of ecosystem dynamics, (b) difficulties in environmental assessment as prelude to adaptive management, and (c) the institutional complexities of managing such non-linear ecological systems. Each of these is briefly described below.

The presence of alternative ecosystem configurations creates many difficulties for managers, one of which is the level of uncertainty associated with regime shifts. Simplistically managers attempt to either (a) maintain ecosystems in a particular state (such as a park or preserve), or (b) attempt to transition an ecosystem from one state to another. Although resilience is a key property that mediates transition among states, it remains an elusive target for analysis and prescription. Recent work on quantifying system states, thresholds and tipping points (Scheffer et al. 2001, Brock and Carpenter 2010) indicates that no single indicator or surrogate can be found, and that a priori signals of regime shifts require immense amounts of data that are generally lacking for most managed resource systems. Moreover, while many regime shifts have been observed and studied (Gunderson and Pritchard 2002, Folke et al. 2004), the mechanisms of moving systems among regimes cannot be determined through planning and design, but must be learned through practice. This key uncertainty, the inability to bridge the knowledge to action gap which resilience theory posits, was one of the key reasons for developing adaptive management (Holling 1978).

Adaptive assessments were developed to help understand processes that underpin ecosystem regime shifts and how to design management actions to navigate such transitions. The process was developed in part to attempt to bring together understandings, models and theories held by scientists and practitioners with different disciplinary backgrounds and training (Holling 1978). As such, the models have been used to integrate understanding, highlight uncertainties, and develop imaginative solutions (Walters 1986). Indeed some of the failures of the adaptive assessment process have been attributed to the difficulties of modeling cross-scale dynamics that generate certain types of regime changes (Walters 1997). However, the assessment process has been critical in generating robust management actions that have led to learning how to navigate regime transitions, and moreover the importance of experimentation through adaptive management. One example is the environmental assessment workshops that contributed to the large-scale ecosystem restoration plans in the Everglades (Walters et al. 1992), with the restoration objective being to flip the current degraded system into a more desired ecological state.

The implementation of adaptive management by resource managers in the United States over the past three decades has been problematic (Allen and Gunderson 2011). While hundreds of adaptive assessments have led to successfully redefining or creating new policies and programs (Walters 1997), adaptive management programs have had mixed results (Johnson 1999). Lee (1993) chronicled the lessons from the adaptive management program in the Columbia River and was among the first to distinguish between the scientific/technical aspects of resource management and the social/political dimensions. Gunderson (1999) suggested that resource systems had to have two key properties to flourish: ecological resilience, which provides the insurance against failure of management actions, and institutional flexibility, which allows for expansion of narrowly defined missions to ones of learning and adaptation. Peterson et al. (2003) argued that adaptive management was appropriate for resource settings characterized by high uncertainty and high degrees of resource controllability for experimentation. Walters (2007) painted a gloomy picture from his experiences; hundreds of programs have failed to implement experimental management due to a lack of resources to monitor and learn from actions, an unwillingness to admit uncertainty, and from failures of leadership . Recent work (Benson and Stone 2013) found that legal and institutional constraints hinder the implementation of adaptive management. Yet, in spite of these failures and obstacles, adaptive management has continued to be applied to federal level resource management agencies including many in the U.S. Department of Interior, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (Williams et al. 2009, Benson and Stone 2013, Scarlett 2013).

One response to the institutional and bureaucratic barriers faced by practitioners of adaptive management has been the advent of adaptive governance (Brunner et al. 2006). Adaptive governance is an emergent framework that unites formal and informal institutions to manage complex, dynamic and turbulent resource systems (Folke et al. 2005). Adaptive governance arose in response to the failures of implementing singular solutions through a top down, technocratic system that failed to adequately navigate the social and political realms of resource issues (Brunner et al. 2006). As such it has developed into a collaborative framework of collective decision-making (Benson and Stone 2013, Scarlett 2013) on how to implement, monitor and learn from management actions. The lack of such governance can lead to not only failures of adaptive management, but can be indicative of managed resource systems being very resilient or trapped by extant policies and politics (Gunderson and Light 2006). As adaptive governance continues to evolve through the practice of adaptive management, it will change as will our understanding of how policy and governance best interfaces with management. But such changes are based upon agency or organizational cultures, resolving multiple stakeholder values, ecological understanding, and legal mandates, which are also dynamic entities (Westley 2002). Moreover, as other chapters in this book indicate, the concept and theories of resilience are just beginning to be applied in context of the many dimensions of adaptive governance.

Even though there have been conceptual linkages between adaptive managers and theories of ecological resilience, few cases exist of explicit linkage of adaptive management to ecological resilience . In order to explore the opportunities for linkages among adaptive management, adaptive governance and resilience, the senior author interviewed ten key decision makers in natural resource management. The participants are part of a formal network, the Collaborative Adaptive Management Network (http://​www.​adaptivemanageme​nt.​net/​). The practitioners who participated work, or have worked, in U.S. federal agencies (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution, U.S. Geological Survey, Bureau of Land Management) or non-governmental organizations (the Meridian Institute, Foundations of Success and other private science/engineering/restoration consulting firms), and are experienced in the application of adaptive management. The interviewees were selected from a cross-sectional sample of the two organizational types. The discussions were driven by a series of queries, such as do adaptive management organizations engage in managing for resilience? If so, how does that manifest in agency statements and/or missions? What roles do organizations (both agencies and networks) play in resilience management? What, if anything, could be monitored to independently test a system’s resilience? Their responses tended to fall into three categories: managing ecological resilience, the development of networks to facilitate adaptive management and resilience-based management, and preliminary reflections on networks of practice and resilience. Each of these is discussed in the following sections.

Managing Ecological Resilience

Managing ecological resilience has proven enigmatic. Part of the puzzle is in understanding the relationship between concepts of ecological resilience and application of the concepts by land managers in the United States (and elsewhere). A number of facets of this relationship can be identified. One has to do with the definition(s) of resilience and implications for resource management. Another complication has to do with whether one assumes resilience to be a normative property of managed ecosystems. Another complication arises from the relationship between resilience and the organizational, institutional or agency mission and directives. Yet another problematic area is in the operationalizing of resilience.

Resilience remains an ambiguous term for both scholars and managers. While most of the applied definitions recognize the presence of alternative states (Folke et al. 2004), many focus on protecting and maintaining a particular ecosystem state (Levin and Lubchenco 2008). Walker et al. (2002) suggest that resilience management is a goal to prevent a system from “moving into undesirable configurations.” Certainly, this is appropriate and consistent with many ecosystem settings, such as protecting endangered species from extinction (an irreversible regime shift). However it does not deal with situations in which a managed resource is in a pathologically stable state and restoration is a goal (Zellmer and Gunderson 2009). The managers we interviewed suggest that resilience is defined broadly, which makes it appropriate for talking about general goals, such as ecosystem restoration . This is consistent with Brand and Jax (2007) who define the use of the term as a ‘boundary object’, or useful term for bridging different perspectives. However, some managers felt that resilience still remains too abstract a concept to be used in operations, plans or management actions. Many of the interviewed managers understood various definitions of resilience, but had different views on resilience as a management goal.

Resilience according to some managers is a normative concept; in other words the ecological systems that they manage should be or ought to be resilient. Those managers who focus on conservation, tended to view systems in this way. That is, systems ought to be resilient to broad external forces, such as human development or climate change . Other managers didn’t use the word resilience in this context, but rather used the word health or healthy as a synonym of resilience to describe the way in which a particular area or unit should be managed. Most of the managers indicated that resilience was a positive property of systems. In other words, many thought that resilience should be considered as one of many general objectives of management, but difficulties in defining and making it operational would preclude it as a specific goal.

Many managers discussed the relationship between managing for resilience and objectives or culture of their organization. In this context, resilience is viewed as a description of ecosystem properties (Brand and Jax 2007). One interviewee stated that their organization still fundamentally views nature as a static entity and doesn’t recognize the need for either resilience concepts or adaptive management. For some of the interviewees, resilience was either implicit in or unnecessary to their implementation of adaptive management. A few interviewees stated that resilience has not been considered because it is not mentioned in laws that guide and structure agency or organizational missions. Other scholars, however, have argued that existing laws and regulations, which drive many agency and organizational actions, can be interpreted through a resilience lens. Scholars are now suggesting that laws such as the National Environmental Protection Act (Benson and Garmestani 2011) or the Endangered Species Act (Benson 2012) could be administered in such a way to reflect resilience concepts of multiple states or regimes. For those interviewees who thought that resilience ideas could be addressed with existing organizational missions, they pointed to issues of implementation.

For those interviewed managers who understand ecological resilience, they listed a number of key challenges that preclude managing for resilience. These challenges are related to how individuals and agencies deal with uncertainty and risk. Many of the managers state that the lack of knowledge about linking a particular action with a particular magnitude of response will preclude any action. Others recognize that the uncertainties of regime shift dynamics will generally stymie management actions as well, and bluntly state that they do not have sufficient information to be able to manage for resilience. Other managers relayed difficulties in establishing ecological attributes and indicators that reveal information about ecological resilience because most of the variables are monitored for other reasons. Others suggest that the ecosystem indicators were established to assess progress towards management goals, or performance measures. That is, these measures allow for evaluation of success of strategies and actions. Managers suggest that quantification of actions and consequences are needed to justify actions and to report organizational progress to funding sources.

Creating Networks for Adaptive Management Implementation

In recent history in the United States, decision makers and scientists struggled with making progress toward their objectives when attempting species restoration and recovery. There were significant barriers to progress. Brunner (2006

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