Accountability in Plans so Adaptive Management Can Work

So we want a simplier, more adaptive management structure for forest planning and implementation?   This won’t work until we first address the questions  of public accountability and success in court.

In his law review article “Regulation by Adaptive Management – Is it Possible?”,  Florida State Law Professor J.B. Ruhl argues that environmental regulation (which can also be applied to forest planning) needs to move away from “prescriptive regulation” to adaptive management, but there are barriers.

 If we were to apply an adaptive management approach in forest planning, the Forest Service needs to consider the battles that Ruhl says will come from three fronts:  legislative, the public, and the courts.  He gives a case study of a Fish and Wildlife Service adaptive management approach to the Endangered Species Act. He observes that over time, agencies find that interest groups and the courts peck away at adaptive agency behavior, and that under conventional administrative law, agencies adopt adaptive management at their own peril.

Ruhl suggests a model of regulation (which we could embed in our forest plans) that sets boundaries that can be monitored and enforced in courts. There are two elements that we could put into plans. First, a decision shouldn’t be altered too soon after being made – what Ruhl calls “volatility.” A radical departure made quickly after the initial position suggests that the agency’s operational model is faulty, its monitoring is defective, or something else is fundamentally flawed. The other problem is the concern that an accumulation of small adjustments over time may put the agency too far from its initial position – what Ruhl calls “drift.” So a forest plan could establish the boundary of acceptable volatility (narrow at first which can broaden over time), and a broader boundary of acceptable drift.  What would such a plan look like? 

6 thoughts on “Accountability in Plans so Adaptive Management Can Work”

  1. OK John,

    I read the article and agree that policy “volatility” and “drift” are important considerations, whether or not we are talking about adaptive management. For example, my major concern with locally sponsored initiatives that are “blessed” by local Congressional delegates relates closely to the “drift” concern. An interesting amusement of mine when in the USFS was to watch for what we all used to call the “initiative of the week”.

    What I don’t yet understand from 30 years experience with USFS Planning is what, realistically, “is” a forest plan? I heard a lot of cliches, some abandoned long ago like “a forest plan is a vehicle to provide once-and-for-all NEPA compliance.” (meaning that a forest plan could get the agency a long way toward that goal). Or “a forest plan establishes goals and objectives, standards and guidelines” for just about everything under the sun, and also sets up “management areas”, and more. Talk about an invitation for litigation, process gridlock and more. But I have yet to understand the “what” and “why” of a forest plan that might actually be of use to anyone.

    Maybe I’m just too far from the action. Maybe others are too close. But I am right now pretty much convinced that the whole idea of a forest plan is pretty much nonsense.

    Long live emergent adaptive co-management (adaptive Co-management Google Link).

    PS.. Even though I’m not sure what a forest plan is or does, that is not already done elsewhere (other than the few Legal Requirements that Andy Stahl mentions) I still think it worthwhile for the public and the agency to assess the forest (maybe not as an administrative unit) and to think about what things ought to be allowed/disallowed on various parts of the landscape (both at scales below that administrative unit and beyond the boundaries). And I’m not adverse to keeping any administrative decisions that derive from such talk in information systems available to both the agency and the public.

  2. Dave- when the newer Committee of Scientists started, I suggested that the question at hand should not be “how can we fix planning to make it work better?”, but instead

    1) Should forest planning exist (except as you say, the direct legal requirements)?

    2) Is there anything useful that gets done in forest planning?
    If so, please articulate what and to whom it is useful.

    3) Given that we agree on the utility of some action, what are the pros and cons of doing it in a forest plan compared to some other mechanism at a larger, smaller scale, or in another decision document at the forest scale?

    But it’s never too late (or at least it doesn’t seem to be) so we can continue that discussion here.

  3. John,

    I think this is a very constructive way to frame any discussion regarding adaptive management. Ruhl’s piece is good stuff, lots of important background and questions asked. I’ve been equally influenced by the work of law professor Holly Doremus in this regard. She wrote some years ago about bringing accountability into adaptive management (AM), so AM doesn’t get exploited by agencies, or used to duck tough decisions (

    This includes an interesting discussion of using pre-negotiated enforceable commitments specifying what actions will be taken by agencies when monitoring information shows X or Y. Some predetermined decisions, in other words, are built into the AM framework from the get-go: if we find X, then we must do Y in other words.

    I’ve been slowly building a file of cases and examples of such predetermined commitments in natural resources management—what I call “thresholds and triggers in adaptive federal lands management.” There are some neat examples of this approach being used by agencies, though some folks counter that such a framework is not truly adaptive, but rather contingency planning (more on that later).

    It’s at least something to consider: perhaps a way to have an adaptive approach to planning (or project-level stuff) that also promotes some certainty and accountability along the way. And for better or worse, people are looking for more certainty in forest planning and management these days.

  4. Here is a followup from JB Ruhl:

    Dear Mr. Rupe-

    Thanks so much for getting in touch and for highlighting my work on the very interesting blog post. The FS has its hands full and needs a lot of good thinking like that to sort through it all. I’ve had hands-on experience with AM only under the ESA; it is very gratifying to see that my academic musings from that experience may be of some use to resource managers in other fields.

    I have some more recent work that might be of interest to you. One article gets more into the details of natural resources AM, with some overlap with the Minnesota article. You should be able to download it here if interested.

    Another article with Rob Fischman, not yet published, surveys how AM has fared in the courts and offers some guidelines for agencies based on that experience. Feel free to download it here.

    You are welcome to distribute those URLs or the pdfs within the FS if you think they’ll be of use.

    All best pulling together the new rule.


    J.B. Ruhl
    Matthews & Hawkins Professor of Property
    Florida State University College of Law
    Tallahassee, FL 32306-1601


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