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Since adaptive ecosystem management was described, the need for such a process has been widely recognized by restoration ecologists and managers. In the United States, for example, the National Research Council (NRC) has recommended that ecological restoration projects be designed and executed according to the principles of adaptive planning and management. The NRC report highlights the fact that inflexible restoration goals and plans are unlikely to succeed given that knowledge of natural and social systems is imperfect. As the restoration ecologist John Cairns, Jr., stated: “whatever restoration measures we take, the outcome is highly uncertain.” The reliable existence of such uncertainty means that plans for ecological restoration may need to be modified as technical knowledge improves, as social preferences change, or as laws and regulations mandate. Adaptive management is designed for situations in which critical decisions must be made despite the existence of uncertainties, even changing ecosystems. The definitions of adaptive management available in the published literature are somewhat varied, but generally reflect the principles contained in the following definition: A process for testing hypotheses through management experiments in natural systems, collecting and interpreting new information, and making changes based on monitoring information to improve the management of ecosystems.
As this definition suggests, it is useful to think of adaptive management as a restoration planning process that allows managers, researchers and stakeholders to learn from experience. Most ecosystems take many years to recover, and careful planning makes it possible to learn during this time period. Learning occurs through comparison of initial conceptions about the ecosystem to measured effects of management actions, particularly actions that are experimentally designed. The application of this learning in later stages of adaptive management programs can produce outcomes that are substantially improved over implementation based on initial knowledge alone.
Oftentimes, a defined goal such as the recovery of Pallid sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus albus) populations provides the impetus for a restoration planning process. Adaptive management is a tool that allows all stakeholders to work toward this goal while recognizing that ecosystems are complex, recovery times may be long and management actions are uncertain. Both scientific information and the value systems of stakeholders are incorporated in the process. Because of this promise, adaptive management “has become the paradigm for the management of large, complex, human-dominated systems.”