by Sky Jarvis
Sky Jarvis is part of a team of CPCIL Research and Knowledge Gatherers producing content and compiling resources on themes such as inclusion, ecosocial justice, partnerships, conservation, organizational sustainability, climate change and biodiversity, connection to nature, conservation financing, and ecotourism, to support effective and equitable leadership and inclusion in parks and protected areas across Canada.
Adap·tive (adjective): arising as the result of adaptation
Ad·ap·ta·tion (noun): the process of changing to fit some purpose or situation; the process of adapting
There is an inherent need for urgency when dealing with the challenges facing my generation namely the biodiversity crisis, the climate crisis, plastic pollution, and extreme poverty. Right now, British Columbia is an example for the rest of Canada on the far-reaching impacts which climate change and seemingly more frequent weather events have on parks and societies from never-before-seen wildfire seasons to atmospheric rivers and polar vortexes. The impacts of climate change are staring residents right in the face: from declining pacific salmon numbers to the heatwaves, fires, and landslides. And who else can forget, the global COVID-19 pandemic? The leaders of today don’t only need to come up with new and creative solutions to these complex and wicked problems, but they also need to start implementing actions and approaches to mitigate the potential negative effects of these complex socio-ecological dilemmas.
Salafsky and Margoulis (1998; 2003) have defined adaptive management as an approach where managers can systematically test assumptions and take the knowledge gained from this experimental process to adapt future designs and management actions based on the information gained through monitoring to guide learning. This may be very beneficial when considering field conservation which is situated within a complex socio-ecological system (Figure 1) containing many different interactions, feedback loops, and tipping points; all of which occur across an array of different spatial and temporal scales. Adaptive management frameworks can assist with creating a flexible approach to dealing with the complex environmental problems seen today.
Figure 1: Multidisciplinary approaches that integrate social and ecological sciences could be one such way to address some of the pressing environmental issues faced by today’s generations (Virapongse et al. 2016). Socio-Ecological systems are a product of human economies, culture, and policies as well as larger-scale biogeochemical processes which have shaped not only Earth’s physical environment but also the evolution of species for billions of years.
The World is Changing - So Must We
For much of the past 100-200 years, dominant worldviews have considered natural resources to be limitless, the bounty of the new world. However, 200 years of utilitarian management paradigms, coupled with overexploitation, have finally begun to reveal the scarcity of many of these resources. The need to sustainably manage resources such as biodiversity, old-growth forests, clean air, and fresh water has become more apparent than ever. This desire for sustainable management which not only provides for today’s society but also for future generations and the needs of other species has led to increasing conflict and social pressures for politicians and practitioners. New theoretical perspectives and approaches are now starting to view ecosystems as complex and highly dynamic systems and have begun to acknowledge that we may have to start shifting towards more holistic and flexible management tactics (Virapongse et al. 2016).
There may be inherent risks when implementing management actions without a full comprehension of the system and how it may react. However, this uncertainty shouldn’t be a reason not to implement actions when we know that something must be done. We need to act now, and adaptive management frameworks (Figure 2) may provide one way for resource managers, park leaders, and decision-makers to proceed with taking actions in the face of complexity and uncertainty. Through the experimental implementation of an array of alternative approaches, each with its own consequences and potential effects, we can begin to build knowledge of the system, its components, and its behavior. At first, we may not truly understand how the system may respond, but hopefully over time and with monitoring and re-evaluation resource managers can reassess their assumptions and incorporate local knowledge sources to develop site-specific approaches that are reflective of the uniqueness of that system and the human communities who interact and rely on it.
Figure 2: The adaptive management framework can be broken down into 5 basic steps where resource managers, stakeholders, and decision-makers can work together to design, develop, and implement experimental approaches to addressing social and environmental issues (Salafsky & Margoulis, 2003). This is a cycle, so iteration is part of the process- if at first you don’t succeed take that information, make some changes and try again.
Holistic and Flexible Approaches may be Better Suited for Adaptation
Although project design, management, and monitoring are high-cost activities it is believed that current investments can save resources in the future through increased effectiveness of projects (Salafsky and Margoulis, 1998). It has recently been thought that inadequate monitoring and evaluation is one of the main challenges associated with adaptive management of complex systems and that it’s a hindrance to the successful implementation of this type of approach (Waylen et al. 2019). According to Virapongse et al. (2016), robust and clearly defined monitoring plans can address other known challenges to adaptive management, such as the need to manage at broader landscape-level scales, accommodating abrupt changes/shocks, and addressing empirical data needs. I personally also feel that another main hindrance is the lack of including the perspectives and values of local and indigenous communities within the design phase. Local communities should be consulted before a main objective and goal are established so that their values are considered and hopefully reflected in the project before different alternatives are selected for implementation. This may help with public acceptance and support of the project as important stakeholders. Furthermore, local peoples have invaluable sources of knowledge about the system with which they and their ancestors have interacted with for generations and can assist with evaluation as different approaches are implemented. One example of how local and indigenous communities have been engaged within park planning and resource management can be seen in the Land-Sea-People Plan for Gwaii Haanas National Park, where Indigenous knowledge systems and Haida Laws have been acknowledged and incorporated with scientific principles (Figure 3) to generate a zoning plan that attempts to accommodate recreation, economic, and cultural land-uses.
Figure 3: Together traditional knowledge and scientific information can intertwine to provide placed-based responses to the drivers of social and environmental change. Gwaii Haanas also known as the Islands of Beauty, is in an oceanic upwelling region in the North Pacific. This provides cold nutrient-rich waters that have supported high levels of biological productivity, endemic species, migratory birds, and the Haida people for thousands of years. This National Park has intrinsic conservation potential for an array of environmental and social values.
It is vital to the success of the project that design, management, and monitoring are not separated, but rather that a holistic approach is taken to integrate these components. Systematic use of the cycle and steps listed above can allow practitioners to learn more about the system they are working in and can lead to increased effectiveness and efficiency over time (Salafsky and Margoulis, 2003).
Testing Assumptions: The process of experimentally implementing different actions in attempts to achieve a desirable outcome based on knowledge of the problem, the objectives, the operational environment, management alternatives, and potential consequences. This is not a random process and post-implementation monitoring will be needed to evaluate (1) the ability of the different approaches to meet the desired outcome and (2) how they compare to the assumptions. This will allow managers to see which actions worked as well as develop a better understanding of why some approaches performed better than others (Salafsky and Margoulis, 2003)
Adapting: The ability to incorporate newly gained knowledge, different perspectives, and values into the project. This may also involve critically assessing the validity of the results, the assumptions, and the implementation and monitoring of the project. This may include changing assumptions, tweaking the study design, and/or considering different approaches.
Learning: Documenting the planning, implementation, and evaluation of the project so that others may review the processes taken to achieve the outcomes. Knowledge sharing will allow for others to benefit from these experiences and build upon the successes or failures of the project (Salafsky and Margoulis, 2003).
The realist approach which acknowledges that many of our environmental issues are a result of an off-balance within the socio-ecological systems that we eat, breath, and sleep in, may in fact get us much closer to the actual problem. There is no simple solution. More than ever, we need to find ways to balance our social needs (livelihoods, culture, economics, equity) within the means of nature to provide these goods and services. As with many other organisms, we humans may have to adapt, evolve, or die as we continue further into the Anthropocene.
Adaptive management is only of several frameworks which attempt to provide leaders and managers with the ability to start implementing actions in the face of uncertainty. Together we can be the change we want to see. Together we can build a better planet for future generations by addressing some of the issues seen today and creating more diverse and equitable management approaches to conserving biodiversity and ecosystem services. I would love to hear and share any success stories where (1) adaptive management approaches have been implemented in parks and/or resource management or (2) examples on how local and indigenous ideas, values, and perspectives have been incorporated into strategic plans, policies, and projects.
Share your story with me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Virapongse, A., Brooks, S., Metcalf, E. C., Zedalis, M., Gosz, J., Kliskey, A., and L. Alessa. 2016. A social-ecological systems approach for environmental management. Journal of Environmental Management 178: 83-91.
Waylen, K. A., Blackstock, K. L., Van Hulst, F. J., Damian, C., Horváth, F., Johnson, R. K., … & J. Van Uytvanck. 2019. Policy-driven monitoring and evaluation: Does it support adaptive management of socio-ecological systems? Science of the Total Environment 662: 373-384.