Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations

Training & Education

An Introductory Guide to Adaptive Management for Project Leaders and Participants


Forest ecosystems are complex and dynamic. As a result, our understanding of ecosystems and our ability to predict how they will respond to management actions is limited. Together with changing social values, these knowledge gaps lead to uncertainty over how best to manage British Columbia's forests. Despite these uncertainties, forest managers must make decisions and implement plans. Adaptive management is a way for forest managers to proceed responsibly in the face of such uncertainty. It provides a sound alternative to either "charging ahead blindly" or "being paralysed by indecision", both of which can foreclose management options, and have social, economic and ecological impacts.

Adaptive management may be particularly valuable for testing, refining and improving the Forest Practices Code. Although the Code is based on the best available information and expertise, it requires forest managers and workers to implement many new, previously untested strategies. Managers are faced with questions such as: How do I implement the guidelines in a way that will meet management objectives? Which of several possible actions should I implement? There are also uncertainties about whether specific guidelines provide adequate protection for non-timber values, and whether others place unnecessarily tight constraints on timber harvesting. Adaptive management offers a powerful way for addressing these questions.

Adaptive management is a formal, systematic, and rigorous approach to learning from the outcomes of management actions, accommodating change and improving management. It involves synthesizing existing knowledge, exploring alternative actions and making explicit forecasts about their outcomes. Management actions and monitoring programs are carefully designed to generate reliable feedback and clarify the reasons underlying outcomes. Actions and objectives are then adjusted based on this feedback and improved understanding. In addition, decisions, actions and outcomes are carefully documented and communicated to others, so that knowledge gained through experience is passed on, rather than being lost when individuals move or leave the organisation.

Learning from experience is always valuable. A rigorous, deliberate approach to learning is appropriate whenever there is significant uncertainty about possible outcomes of alternative actions and where delaying action is either unnecessary or would have unacceptable ecological, economic or social impacts. To be effective, adaptive management requires a commitment to learn and adjust, adequate resources (e.g., for monitoring and data analysis), and access to necessary expertise. Be aware that complex, contentious problems will require more skill and expertise than simple problems and may take longer to resolve.

Adaptive management was developed in the 1970's by C.S. Holling and co-workers at the University of British Columbia and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. Since then, it has been applied to a range of specific issues, including rehabilitation of salmon stocks in the Columbia River Basin, management of acid rain, and water management in the Florida Everglades. Its application to forest management issues is now receiving increasing attention. For example, ten "Adaptive Management Areas" are now operating in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, the Clayoquot Sound Scientific Panel recommended an adaptive approach to managing Clayoquot Sound, and Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries (AlPac) has adopted adaptive management as principle for guiding operations in its large Forest Management Area in Alberta.

This introductory guide is intended to promote and assist with the application of adaptive management to a range of forest management issues in BC.

(from J.B. Nyberg, 1998 "Statistics and the Practice of Adaptive Management", Chapter 1 in V. Sit and B. Taylor "Statistical Methods for Adaptive Management Studies")

Adaptive management is a systematic process for continually improving management policies and practices by learning from the outcomes of operational programs. Its most effective form–"active" adaptive management–employs management programs that are designed to experimentally compare selected policies or practices, by evaluating alternative hypotheses about the system being managed.