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Friday, March 11, 2011

Adaptive Management for Ecosystem Restoration: Analysis and Issues for Congress

Charles V. Stern, Coordinator
Analyst in Natural Resources Policy

Pervaze A. Sheikh
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

Clinton T. Brass
Analyst in Government Organization and Management

Adaptive management is the process of incorporating new scientific and programmatic information into the implementation of a project or plan to ensure that the goals of the activity are being reached efficiently. It promotes flexible decision-making to modify existing activities or create new activities if new circumstances arise (e.g., new scientific information) or if projects are not meeting their goals.

The complex and dynamic nature of ecosystems make their restoration and management amenable to an adaptive management approach, and the concept is being implemented at scales that include entire regions or river basins. Adaptive management has been used to guide several major ecosystem restoration efforts with involvement by the federal government, including those on the Colorado and Platte rivers. Some of these adaptive management efforts have been specifically authorized by Congress, whereas other efforts have been formulated by agencies. Adaptive management has also been proposed as a guiding principle for several new and ongoing major restoration efforts, including those in the Chesapeake Bay and Lake Tahoe.

The concept of adaptive management is straightforward, but its implementation can be difficult. A preliminary review of federal adaptive management efforts related to ecosystem restoration projects suggests that governance structures, management protocol and other factors vary widely. Additionally, the scope and timing of efforts employing the term “adaptive management” seems to vary among these projects. Where adaptive management has been implemented, it has encountered challenges. While adaptive management theoretically uses the best available science and monitoring to guide a project or program towards its stated goals, in practice the process can be affected by a number of outside factors.

As the number of federal adaptive management efforts grows, Congress may revisit its role in shaping adaptive management programs in legislation. Some argue that Congress should do more to provide specific direction for major adaptive management initiatives in order to make adaptive management more consistent among these efforts. Others contend that Congress should allow federal agencies or restoration governing bodies to shape their own adaptive management programs, thus providing them with flexibility to match their program to their restoration needs. In addressing adaptive management, Congress may face decisions regarding the implementation guidelines and authorizations it provides these efforts, funds to establish and carry out these programs, and oversight issues.

This report provides an introduction to the concept of adaptive management. It focuses on the application of this concept to large, freshwater aquatic ecosystem restoration projects with multiple stakeholders. A summary of the benefits and drawbacks of adaptive management for these projects is provided, along with analysis of potential issues associated with various governance models for these efforts. The potential role for Congress in addressing adaptive management is also discussed. As an appendix, the report summarizes the structure and implementation of federal adaptive management efforts to date five ecosystems: Glen Canyon/Colorado River, Platte River, Lower Colorado River, Missouri River, and Florida Everglades.

Date of Report: March 4, 2011
Number of Pages: 36
Order Number: R41671
Price: $29.95

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