Forest Practices Branch

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Adaptive management of forests in British Columbia

Author(s) or contact(s): B. Taylor, L.L. Kremsater, and R.M. Ellis
Source: Forest Practices Branch
Subject: Adaptive Management
Series: Silviculture
Other details:  Published 1997. Hardcopy is available.


Issues surrounding forest management are ecologically, socially, and economically complex. This complexity, together with limited understanding of forest ecosystems and the unpredictable nature of many natural events, contributes to uncertainty about outcomes of management decisions. Changing social values and goals further increase uncertainty and contribute to controversy. Faced with these issues, people are asking questions such as: What is the best way of meeting management objectives? Are these objectives consistent with societal goals? How can we adapt management practices and plans to accommodate changes in values and goals?

Increasingly, adaptive management is suggested as a strategy for answering these and other questions. It is an approach to management that explicitly acknowledges uncertainty about the outcomes of management policies, and deals with this uncertainty by treating management activities as opportunities for learning how to manage better. Management activities are not just modified as a result of new information; they are deliberately designed to increase understanding about the system being managed.

The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview of adaptive management: what it is, what some of its potential benefits are, and what problems have been or might be faced in trying to implement it effectively. We also outline the key elements of adaptive management and some tools that can help in applying it. This paper is not, however, a "how-to" manual, nor does it make recommendations about if or how adaptive management should be implemented.

This paper originated as a background document for a 3-day workshop on adaptive management, organized by the B.C. Forest Service. In response to information gained during and after the workshop, we expanded and revised the initial document, so that it now provides considerable background information on adaptive management. Further references on adaptive management are cited throughout.

Initially, the purpose of this paper was to survey and analyze actual examples of adaptive management. This turned out to be impractical for two reasons. First, there are relatively few cases where adaptive management is being implemented successfully, particularly in forest management. Examples are particularly difficult to find when managers do adaptive management without writing about it. Second, there is no clear consensus on what does or does not constitute adaptive management. Consequently, trying to label certain projects as “adaptive management” or “not adaptive management” is a frustrating exercise. In this paper, we include examples (summarized in Appendix 1) that illustrate certain elements of adaptive management, and the types of problems to which it can be applied. We also synthesize information from: (i) a review of the literature on adaptive management, (ii) workshop participants, and (iii) discussions with those knowledgeable about adaptive management.

In Section 1, we define adaptive management, discuss a range of views on what it is, and summarize how it has been applied elsewhere. For clarity, we summarize the potential benefits of adaptive management (Section 2) and the reasons for implementing it now (Section 3) separately from the problems with implementing it effectively (Section 4). Institutional and social problems, which are often substantial, are addressed in more detail in Section 7. In Sections 5 and 6, we describe the elements of adaptive management and some of the tools used to implement it.

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Updated November 06, 2009