Adaptive Management: Addressing Uncertainty or a Shell Game?

Introduction to Spring 2016 Ecesis, Volume 26, Issue 1

Adaptive Management has been put forward as holding the potential to address ecological issues in ways that standard command and control approaches cannot (Holling, 1978; Walters, 1986). Most conservation projects today are either required by or at least largely defined by top-down, command and control processes. Adaptive management has become popular precisely because it has been recognized and shown that command and control structures are often not applicable to dynamic, complex, and oftentimes chaotic, natural processes. But what is adaptive management and does it work? 

First, adaptive management has been defined in a myriad of ways. But for the sake of this article, let’s use the following definition, as good and precise as any I’ve found: “Adaptive management, also known as adaptive resource management, is a structured, iterative process of robust decision-making in the face of uncertainty, with an aim to reducing uncertainty over time via system monitoring.” The question is whether this is a good definition or not. The answer is suggested in a paper presented by Walters, one of the ‘fathers’ of adaptive management in 1997 (Walters, 1997), written some ten years after his landmark book Adaptive Management of Renewable Resources. Walters suggests that adaptive management has been only marginally successful and where it has not worked, the main culprit is self-interest. And one of the main manifestations of this self interest is the resistance to embracing uncertainty.

While this seems like a fairly simple problem to overcome, it is not. The ability (or lack thereof) to embrace uncertainty goes to the foundation of what we are as human beings; with how we interact with the world and with each other. In order to embrace uncertainty, we need to embrace being WRONG. And being wrong is something that we tend to avoid at all costs. In every war that has been fought, the millions that have perished, the political debates that seem more and more vitriolic, every spousal fight, nearly every divorce, there is one common thread — both sides are sure they are right and in some cases will put their lives on the line.

So how then might we, as simple restoration and conservation practitioners, come to grips with things that have brought nations and cultures to their knees? Good question. If you discover the answer, please send me a postcard and definitely let Donald Trump know. 

Ecological Restoration is the litmus test of our understanding of ecological processes.
— Tony Bradshaw, British evolutionary ecologist

You may be reading this article as a ‘how to’ article, and as such, I would like to offer the following — in order to truly engage in adaptive management (what I have come to call ‘Outcome-Based Management or better yet, as the Conservation Measures Partnership calls it, ‘Results-Based Management’) begin by reading Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schultz (Schultz, 2010) or simply watch Schultz’s 20-minute TED talk. Fascinating but — as is the history of US-Native American interaction — very difficult to accept, let alone embrace. Still, it seems pretty darn accurate and in the end, an essential understanding.
So, if you’ve gotten this far and are still interested in the what and how of adaptive management — that is, true adaptive management per Holing and Walters, rather than the many popularized ‘folk versions’ — you might try the following exercise on for size (I find it useful to do it at least 10 times per day):

Imagine you are part of a team trying to get a $2M contract from a regulatory agency (say USFWS or USEPA). They ask a question that at first seems simple, but upon honest reflection, you’re not 100% confident of an accurate understanding. 

Here’s the exercise — repeat after me — “I DON’T KNOW.” 

OK. Maybe it doesn’t seem so hard, but try it in a real life situation. And here’s the key: It’s not in saying “I don’t know” that you find the key to adaptive management; it’s in what you do next. It’s about how you find out. The thing is, “I don’t know” is seldom heard in our business. It is literally a different way of doing business and a different way of looking at the world around us. A simple how-to, maybe. But as they say, “Simple isn’t necessarily easy. Try living a simple lifestyle.”

In the upcoming SERCAL Conference, Creativity in Collaboration, we will discuss this issue in some detail, since true creativity comes from ‘I don’t know’. That’s the essence of creativity. If you know, there is nothing to create. If you don’t, the world is full of undiscovered possibility. We hope you can join us at the conference to explore some of the potential creativity that lies waiting and I hope that you will especially join us on Wednesday and Thursday for the Mono Lake session where we’ll be presenting some unique applications of ‘I don’t know.’ — by Michael Hogan, Integrated Environmental Restoration Services, Inc., former SERCAL President, Conference Chair, and long-time Board member

Holling, C.S. (ed.) 1978. Adaptive Environmental Assessment and Management. Chichester: Wiley. ISBN 0-471-99632-7.
Schultz, Kathryn. 2010. Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error; Ecco / HarperCollins; Also search for “Being Wrong Kathryn Schulz” 
Walters, Carl. 1986. Adaptive Management of Renewable Resources. New York: Macmillan. ISBN 0-02-947970-3.
Walters, Carl. 1997. Challenges in adaptive management of riparian and coastal ecosystems. Conservation Ecology [online]1(2):1. Available through

Definition of Adaptive Management courtesy
Explanation of Outcome-based Management courtesy
Explanation of Results-based Management courtesy

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