1.3 Adaptive Management

Think of a management problem: managing tourist pressure in a conservation area or managing access to water in a water-deficient area, perhaps. Now design an indicator-based GIS application to underpin the management response, and deliver your design to your client within a month. At first sight this might sound inherently simple albeit somewhat challenging, until you realise that you haven’t got enough information even to make a start. In fact, the request is as poorly defined as being told that your manager wants to go to Paris and you must arrange the travel. Basic questions arise – and most fundamental being “what mode of travel do you want to use?”, which in our management example equates with “what management structure must the GIS support?”. That’s why the user needs analysis that should precede the system specification for any GIS application would always focus on the working role of the GIS within an existing or proposed management system and structure. And that is why it is helpful to consider how GIS application roles (and thus designs) and management approaches integrate in an environmental context.

Adaptive management is the process of adjusting management actions and/or directions as new and better information emerges about the ecosystem.

US Forest and Wildlife Service (2005)


Adaptive management is one framework for thinking through the choice of indicators that will be used to manage an environmental resource. Adaptive management is typically used where an ecosystem or other environmental resource is poorly understood, which emerged during the late 1970s in North America (Williams, Szaro, and Shapiro, 2009). With an adaptive management approach, the idea is that hypotheses or hunches about ecosystem functioning can be tested out by collecting appropriate data. For example, if we believe that the encroachment of bracken on heathland can quickly be reduced by culling greater numbers of deer, we would select indicators to help us evaluate this belief. Typical indicators might be the number of deer culled and some aerial photo or ground-based vegetation surveys. If these indicators show that our strategy of increasing the deer cull does not work, we would need to adapt it. We might switch to a different bracken control strategy based on another belief or perhaps on ideas generated by our vegetation surveys. We would also need to document our decision to switch away from culling deer using the indicator-based evidence that underpins it. In situations where an environmental resource is poorly understood, this cycle of designing indicators to assess a management action, revewing them, then adapting the management action accordingly is the essence of adaptive management. The indicators are selected by thinking about management actions and how to evaluate them and in practice, many of these indicators will be derived from spatial data within a GIS. As such the adaptive management approach recognises that environmental systems are highly uncertain, but also that managers can learn by doing.

Figure 1: Broadleaf trees as found in the New Forest

Figure 1: Broadleaf trees as found in the New Forest


Read the first chapter of the Williams, Szaro and Shapiro (2009) technical guide to adaptive management and the Landscape section in the New Forest report (printed pages 64 – 73). If you are unfamiliar with hedgerows, you may also find the hedgerow survey handbook in the references of help. Post a message to the discussion board for this unit, which :

  • Do you think that an adaptive management approach could be of use in managing a landscape of hedgerows? If not, why not?

Post your thoughts to the discussion board.

References (Essential reading for this learning object indicated by *)

* Williams B, Szaro R, and Shapiro C (2009): Adaptive Management – the US Dept of the Interior Technical Guide. Adaptive Management Working Group, US Dept of the Interior, Washington DC. https://www.doi.gov/sites/doi.gov/files/migrated/ppa/upload/TechGuide.pdfhttps://www.doi.gov/sites/doi.gov/files/migrated/ppa/upload/TechGuide.pdf. Chapter 1 ‘what is adaptive management?’ can be found here: https://www.doi.gov/sites/doi.gov/files/migrated/ppa/upload/Chapter1.pdf.

*GeoData Institute, University of Southampton (2000) New Forest Heritage Area: Indicators and Monitoring. Report UC370. 106pp.

Hedgerow Survey Handbook: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/hedgerow-survey-handbook

You can also find out more about hedgerows as landscape features by visiting http://www.hedgelink.org.uk/index.php


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