Adaptive Governance and Forest Planning

Army Officer at Nine Mile Camp, Mt. Baker National Forest, 1933, photo by W.L. Baker

The more we look at the literature, the more evidence we find that our current NFMA management system doesn’t align with the current thinking about land use management.  We gravitate toward adaptive management, but we don’t quite grasp it yet.

A slight twist on the adaptive management idea is the concept of “adaptive governance.” The word “governance” instead of “management” recognizes the collaborative aspects. It’s similar to the idea of “adaptive co-management”  that Dave Iverson has described in his post here and here on this blog, citing the summary from the Resilience Alliance.

The concepts of adaptive governance are worth considering in the forest planning and management system for a couple of reasons. First, it includes the idea of learning-oriented planning similar to what Jim Burchfield proposes in his earlier post on this blog. Second, the role of science is different. Instead of relying on scientific management as the foundation for policy development, adaptive governance integrates various types of knowledge in a contextual manner.  This is similar to what Sharon describes here and here about analyzing specific questions posed by land managers and the public .

In the book Adaptive Governance: Integrating Science, Policy, and Decision Making by Ronald Brunner, Toddi Steelman, Lindy Coe-Juell, Christina Cromley, et. al., the authors use five case studies across the West. oxford journal review

The authors make the following points about adaptive governance:

  • Planning sets goals. You try alternatives. The burden of decision making shifts to monitoring and evaluation and terminating policy alternatives that fail.
  • No policy is permanent because interests, knowledge, and other significant details of the context are subject to change.
  • There is an understanding that politics are unavoidable. Participants assume responsibility and accountability for the policy because they must live with the consequences of implementing it.
  • Best available science is integrated with other kinds of knowledge, including local knowledge.
  • Science must be contextual, necessitating interpretations and judgments that integrate what is known about the context.

These guidelines appear to converge with other ideas that we’ve noted on this blog.  There seems to be evidence that this works.  Although NFMA and the previous forest planning rules are grounded in the scientific management process, the 2000, 2005, and 2008 rules introduced the concept of collaboration in all aspects of planning, monitoring, and evaluation, and required the consideration of uncertainty and risk. But what is missing in those rules is the idea that we are committed to using dynamic monitoring and a collaborative evaluation process in order to change policy.  For those that think that the NFMA planning rule is just about writing a Forest Plan, this would be a huge surprise and some would argue, a wake-up call.  Are the concepts of adaptive governance the next step?


  1. Good post, John. Yes, the concepts are important.

    I guess I’ll have to drop my animosity to “Adaptive Governance” as a catch-phrase, if only because I played a small part in development of an earlier book by some of the authors, Finding Common Ground: Governance and Natural Resources in the American West, (2002). Along with my old friend Jay Gore, I spent a few days spent with the authors and some of the case study participants in Jackson Hole, WY playing with concepts prior to publication. Great place, good people, wonderful discussions. I included that book in my Collaboration Readings.

    I still think that the phrase “Adaptive Governance” over-reaches, but what phrase doesn’t—we do live in a sound-bite culture. Adaptive Administrative Governance would be more to the point, leaving adequate space for the legislative and judicial branches of government. But I’ll drop further criticism of the term. Besides, Adaptive Governance is less cumbersome phrasing.

    Here is a book review of Adaptive Governance, available to those of us blocked from the review John hyperlinked above. Someday maybe the academic/profesional society world will better recognize the leverage-value of information: As someone once said, “Information is diffusive. It tends to leak. And the more it leaks the more there is.” But for now people feel they have to charge for it. Oh well. After all, this is the USA, capitalism central!

  2. Hi all,

    Martin Nie alerted me to this blog. What a great forum for discussion and hopefully more. When Ron and I wrote Adaptive Governance with our grad students 5 years ago, we were mostly trying to distinguish the concept of management from governance when we coined the term. We also wanted to draw a distinction between Scientific Management as a paradigm of practice and Adaptive Governance. Where SM starts with the assumption that science can determine policy which then can be implemented through a top-down decision making structure, AG suggests that if you start by recognizing diverse policy interests then you need a decision making structure that can accommodate/integrate these diverse interests. When the decision making structure is in place, then you can leverage science plus other appropriate knowledge to define the problem and alternatives for addressing the problem. In short, SM suggests Science –> Policy –> Decision Making, where as AG suggest Policy (as determined by diverse interests) –> Decision Making (structures that accommodate diverse interests)–> Science + other Knowledge (to inform problem definition and alternative specification). Of course it is not as linear as this but the different treatment of how science, policy and decision making are configured reveal assumptions about world views.

    Since the book was published, my thinking on this has continued to evolve. In my mind AG is what drives decision making at the collective and constitutive levels. Management is really about the operational, on the ground decision making. Ideally, both management and governance structures should be adaptive. I have an upcoming article laying out most of these ideas– hopefully presenting at ISSRM this June.

    As this pertains to planning, it seems to me it is a nested enterprise that has to take into account different spatial scales with management and governance structures appropriate (and appropriately supportive) of those nested scales. Crucial to this is the concept of social learning and how learning takes place both at the management level and the governance level. Feedbacks are key and nested within social processes. It is these social processes that are often overlooked as the support structures for facilitating learning, integration and correction at the multiple scales.

    Toddi Steelman

  3. For an affectionately critical review of Forest Service collaboration and adaptive management, I commend to you Bureaucracy, Collaboration and Coproduction: A case study of the implementation of adaptive management in the U.S.D.A. Forest Service, by Forrest Fleischman. Forrest is now an Indiana University Ph.D. candidate studying under Nobel Prize-winner political scientist Elinor Ostrom.

    Forrest’s paper includes many nuggets. One of my favorites: “. . . the most
    intractable conflicts over public land management are frequently about differing values, and additional information may not help resolve these controversies. In fact, it is possible . . . that agreement between conflicting agendas may be a precondition for adaptive management, rather than a means of resolving them. Given the pervasive conflicts that still surround public forest management in the Pacific Northwest, it may be that a wider and more open public discussion of values is more important than generating additional scientific information.”

  4. All of this is GREAT! A forest plan should not be focused on management. Management is a set of tools for doing something else. The plan should be about that something else, a vision by a cooperative group of people who know the forest , a vision which aims toward what is best for the land and best for the collective values of the people. That is why I said in my comments on the NOI that we need to get away from “multiple use” and move toward multiple values. Here is a excerpt:

    Planning should first be about developing a cooperative VISION for the future of a forest. What should that forest look like? What do the people who know and care about that forest see as the issues impacting it? What can be done to address those issues? What needs are there? What has been lost? What is still there? What can be put back? What is working? What is not? What would a healthy, resilient and vibrant forest ecosystem here look like in 20 years? 50 years? 100 years? How do we get from here to there? What capacities and resources do we have to achieve the vision? What can we not do, or not do yet? What do we know (scientifically, practically, management experience, user needs and desires, etc.) and what do we need to know?

    Providing for a vision for each forest in each plan will require a NFMA rule that has vision as well. We need a vision of a rule that makes forest-level visioning, collaboration, cooperation, restoration, conservation and protection possible. In fact, more than making such goals possible, the rule needs to strongly encourage and facilitate those things.

    Such a rule needs to move management past the days and narrow ideas of “multiple use.” Indeed, this new rule should NOT be about “management.” Management is not a goal; it is a set of tools to reach goals. The rule should be about vision, the goals for our forests and grasslands. Management should be guided by the goals, the vision; it should never direct or dictate them.

    Instead of multiple use, we need to focus on MULTIPLE VALUES and explore the big ideas that take a long view on what a forest should be and thus what the management on that forest should be. Instead of the short-term focus of what we use and take from the forest, we must work on the long-term issues of what we value about the forest and what we can invest in the forest in order to increase those values.

    “Multiple use” looks to the narrow, short-term uses of what each person gets from the forest. It is a selfish view that cares mainly about the individual’s gain. “What does the forest give me?” Not that there is anything wrong with such short-term things; they have a legitimate place, whether economic, recreational, spiritual or otherwise. But for management of a long-term national asset, using short-term individual desires alone, or even primarily, as the means of management planning has proven to be a failure.

    Multiple values would look to what each person can do for the forest in the context of the values of others. “What do I give the forest?” “How do my values interact with other people’s values?” “How can we invest and increase all our values for this forest?” Like President Kennedy said in his inaugural speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what can I do for my country.” Similarly, we need to start asking not what the forest can do for me but what can I do for the forest. And more so, what can WE together do for the forest, because the true value of collaborative visioning for a forest is to figure out how all the people involved in a forest can work together for the long-term betterment of the forest and for all who care about it.

    We need to de-emphasize the idea that management’s goal is “products” from the forest. Yes, products will come from good management, but the goal of management MUST be what is best for the land, not the production of products. Management must be that which implements the vision, not that which only produces something someone wants right now.

    “Values,” collaborative decision-making instead of conflict, and “forest restoration businesses” that compliment recreation and other passive businesses instead of conflicting with them are what will get us to where we want to go and where the land needs to be. These lands have incredible values. Focusing on “uses” and “products” has allowed competing interests to create this 40-year trench war we have had over the forests, as each interest gets focused on their own short-term use as what the lands should be about. But multiple values allow us to see the whole of the forest. We can get together in a cooperative, collaborative framework and work on the land’s values and how they should be invested in for the long-term. The RACNAC proved that this approach works. If we can solve the roadless issue in Idaho of all places, we can solve it everywhere, and we can solve the dilemma posed by the planning rule.

    “Use” focuses me on my selfish use and what the forests can do for me alone. “Values” focus me on things beyond my immediate use, including other people’s uses and how they see and value the forests, and how all that should and could fit together. If everyone does that together in open, honest discussion, progress can be made on all issues.

  5. Ray- I am attempting to replicate a comment I made this AM but then later found out from Dave that I had posted in the wrong thread, and then tried to change it from my Blackberry and deleted it instead.

    So.. what I was trying to ask was..
    Your vision is compelling. You have a silver tongue (or keyboard) and I am ready to get excited about the utility of forest planning as a visioning exercise. I have to wonder though.. the RACNAC’s work was litigated..

    Sometimes it feels like there are groups that will never get enough.. that have a frame of “winning” rather than “collaborating”. It’s like the cultural difference between trade negotiations (e.g., “but how do the Canadians feel about lumber tariffs- we need to collaborate to vision a future where industries in both countries feel good about the outcome”) and going to a dispute resolution service (what can you live with? let’s reach an agreement). The conversations and approaches to dispute resolution seem entirely different.

    And some local stakeholders can feel like they are “carpetbagged” when national groups attempt to trump their agreements through litigation. You must have a pragmatic view of what is a “good enough” collaboration, and that view must not include “was not litigated.” So I guess my question is “how do you know a good collaboration when you see it?”

  6. Pingback: Lessons from the Northwest about Commitment to Adaptive Management « A New Century of Forest Planning

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