Four Steps to Adaptive Management

Managers and scientists are limited by great uncertainty about how ecosystems work, how they are affected by random events, and the effects of forest practices on them.1-3  Both natural and human-induced changes in forests can cause further changes that are unpredictable and difficult to modify.  It is within this challenging context that we must improve and evaluate efforts to sustain biological diversity in managed forests.  Increasingly, agencies are attempting to learn from the consequences of management actions by practicing ‘adaptive management‘.

In order for management to be ‘adaptive’, the effects of management actions must be monitored, and policy and practices adjusted in response. The goal is progressive improvement by first exploring alternatives and key knowledge gaps to clearly define the problem, then by monitoring the development of each management action as though it were an experiment, and finally by using the outcome to change future management actions.4-6   We can learn much more when the management process is used as a learning tool, in addition to basic research.2-4

The structure of this part of the Biodiversity and Forest Management in British Columbia website is based on the key steps in the adaptive management process (Figure 1).  Four questions must be addressed in order for an adaptive management program to work successfully:7

  1. Where do we want to go?
    Setting clear objectives
    Setting initial thresholds, targets or comparisons
  2. How do we get there?
    Choosing management practices
    Comparisons and mechanistic explanations
  3. Are we going in the right direction?
    Assessing the effectiveness of management (monitoring)
    Assessing thresholds and comparisons
  4. How do we change if the direction is wrong?
    Feedback to management


Figure 1. Key steps in managing for biodiversity within an adaptive management framework.

 Issues with adaptive management

The adaptive management approach has become widely accepted and integrated into policy.  Most challenges in applying the adaptive management approach are similar to those facing ecosystem management.  Barriers lie in the socio-political arena and are not due to lack of scientific knowledge or capability.  Examples of such barriers include the unwillingness of agencies to try new things, to risk short-term losses for possible long-term gains, or to change in response to new information.8-11


1Noss, R.F. and A.Y. Cooperrider. 1994. Saving nature’s legacy: protecting and restoring biodiversity. Island Press, Washington, DC. 416p.
2Mulder, B.S., B.R. Noon, T.A. Spies, M.G. Raphael, C.J. Palmer, A.R. Olsen, G.H. Reeves and H.H. Welsh. 1999. The strategy and design of the effectiveness monitoring program for the northwest forest plan. USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Station. PNW-GTR-437.
3Walters, C.J. 1986. Adaptive management of renewable resources. MacMillan, New York, NY.
4Lindenmayer, D.B. and J.F. Franklin. 2002. Conserving forest biodiversity: a comprehensive multiscaled approach. Island Press, Washington, DC. 351p.
5McComb, W.C., T.A. Spies, W.H. Emmingham. 1993. Douglas-fir forests: Managing for timber and mature-forest habitat. Journal of Forestry 91:31-42.
6Taylor, B., L. Kremsater and R. Ellis. 1997. Adaptive management of forests in British Columbia. BC Ministry of Forests, Victoria BC. 93p.
7Bunnell, F.L., B.G. Dunsworth, D.J. Huggard and L.L. Kremsater. 2003. Learning to sustain biological diversity on Weyerhaeuser’s coastal tenure. The Forest Project, Weyerhaeuser, Nanaimo, BC.
8Johnson, B.L. 1999. Introduction to the special feature: adaptive management – scientifically sound, socially challenged? Conservation Ecology 3(1):10.
9Walters, C. 1997. Challenges in adaptive management of riparian and coastal ecosystems. Conservation Ecology 1(2):1.
10Gray, A.N. 2000. Adaptive ecosystem management in the Pacific Northwest: a case study of coastal Oregon. Conservation Ecology 4(2):6.