Adaptive Management

The field of stream ecosystem restoration is a very complex and newly emerging (applied) science. We commonly hear (and believe) that we must utilize a "Multi-disciplinary", "holistic", "systems" approach to managing and restoring our stream ecosystems. What does that mean? How can the regulated community work with the regulators to better accomplish this?

We must develop an "Adaptive Management Process" within an ecosystem context that is born out of consensus to provide that much needed foundation from which restoration and management decisions will be based. This "process" involves managers, scientists and stakeholders who contribute to primary objectives and information needs for their project or resource. This "process" develops a set of techniques that integrate environmental issues with economic and social understanding. This "process" recognizes and targets an audience of practitioners who perform environmental assessment and the ability to communicate those results to senior administrators and policy makers.

An Adaptive Management approach to project design and implementation provides advantages such as:
  • Developing common sense project goals
  • Learning by doing
  • Increased understanding of the resource
  • Produces a product or service
  • Studies large areas and whole systems
  • Avoids messy experimental scenarios in which no learning occurs
  • Measures key management indicators
  • Involves local professionals, managers, and residents in an interactive format

Adaptive Management attempts to deal with our limitations or inability to assess impacts to the environment as a means to produce and deliver better environmental outcomes such as strategies, goals and restoration projects. The goal of an Adaptive Management strategy is to develop a set of techniques to: (1) deal with uncertain information; (2) mobilize available data on partially known processes; and (3) assist with the "formation of objectives that are less sensitive to the unexpected.

Adaptive Management emphasizes a systems approach and communication as the way to achieve a better, shared understanding of the problem. This implies a need to develop simplified models to better understand the behavior of the system. It also demands an emphasis on communication between practitioners in various disciplines and between researchers, practitioners and managers.

This concept is not new and has been in practice across North America over the past 20 years. The Canadian's adopted a national strategy of "Adaptive Management" for stream ecosystems in the late 1990's. The US Forest Service has used an "adaptive management strategy" for forest management in the northwest for many years. The US Fish and Wildlife uses "adaptive management" in waterfowl management. According to Bernard T. Bowmann, US forest Service, "broad top down regulations are not likely to be effective until we foster creative local solutions, adapted to local conditions that emerge from structured learning and adapting experiences. Adaptive Management is probably the only alternative to ever-tightening regulations".

In this field of stream ecosystem restoration, we assume that we will acquire the "best available scientific knowledge" from "experts" at federal, state and local agencies, universities or private sector professionals to base our decisions upon. But that knowledge has proven to be disparate, at best, and disputed, at worst. Often what is "best scientific knowledge" for one person is "inadequate knowledge" or even "biased knowledge" for another. In addition, knowledge derived from experience (applied science) is often proprietary to those practicing professionals working in the field.

Natural Channel theory has a large element of uncertainty. An Adaptive Management approach recognizes the lack of adequate:

  • Tools for predicting behavior of different designs
  • Wide background of theory
  • Applied research
  • Post construction monitoring
  • Codes of practice
  • Design safety factors
  • Professional education and licensing

Consider the barrage of scientific information that professional practitioners must face, sediment transport and competence, river continuum theory, biological criteria, channel evolution models, flow continuum models and the list goes on. Consider the complex list of problems such as urbanizing streams and watersheds, hydromodification, degraded habitat, water quality. These are all recognized problems, but how serious and synergistic are these and how can we best develop restoration and management schemes to address them? It seems clear that the "best available scientific knowledge" is somewhat elusive and is not necessary "applied" knowledge derived from project experience and management adaptation.

Over time, various models have been developed and tested and there are many philosophies of modeling (e.g. river continuum, stream classification). Most of these are useful, perhaps essential to support decision-making in stream ecosystem management. However, none is complete enough to serve as the sole decision support tool for our restoration efforts. The various models do a reasonable job of ranking the expected benefits of management alternatives, and decision-makers would be well served by drawing on all the available analytical tools from the various disciplines.

There may be fundamental problems with getting adaptive management translated from theory to practice because of our "top down" legislative and administrative structures based upon managerial control that is fraught with self-interest and conflicting values. We must also recognize the difficulty of getting large-scale management experiments to happen because of the uncertainty, costs and risks.

The concept of "adaptive management" has grown from this frustration with disparate scientific knowledge, the lack of integration between disciplines and the inability to communicate effectively with decision makers. Many believe that ecosystem restoration requires scientific skepticism. That fish and wildlife recovery should be seen as a series of experiments. Through monitoring and evaluation of these experiments, we should begin to learn what works and what doesn't, effectively communicate our findings and then focus our investments on those experiments, and elements of experiments, that show promise.

Most importantly that adaptive management provides a different approach to managing public resources because it:

  • Is Multi-disciplinary
  • Incorporates Multiple-objectives
  • Recognizes the science is rapidly evolving
  • Expects a long response time
  • Plans for future maintenance and long term life cycle costs
  • Becomes a Management Philosophy

In short, "adaptive management" brings together the state of practice, science, and governance. Adaptive management allows us to learn by doing through communication between the disciplines. That is the essence of adaptive management.

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Oxbow River & Stream Restoration; 2905 Klondike Road; Delaware, OH 43015; (740) 362-4134.
© 2014 Oxbow River & Stream Restoration, Inc. Last updated January 2014.