Adaptive Management: What does it mean for environmental management?

Source: (BC Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Operations, 2011)

Adaptive management (AM) is one of those terms that you often see used in Environmental Assessments (EAs) and other environmental projects that require long-term planning and monitoring. So what exactly does it mean for resource managers and environmental assessment practitioners?

AM, also known as adaptive resource management (ARM), is a structured, iterative process of optimal decision making in the face of uncertainty, with an aim to reducing uncertainty over time via system monitoring.  AM is often used for large scale  and controversial projects (e.g. infrastructure projects such as nuclear waste management facilities, forestry resources management, watershed management, etc.). Adaptive management has been defined in various ways since its development in the early 1970s. A simple definition states that:

“Adaptive management is a systematic process for continually improving management policies and practices by learning from the outcomes of operational programs. Its most effective form–”active” adaptive management–employs management programs that are designed to experimentally compare selected policies or practices, by evaluating alternative hypotheses about the system being managed.” (BC Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Operations, 2011).

Within an AM approach there is an explicit acknowledgement of uncertainties and knowledge gaps about the response of the system to management actions. Reducing these uncertainties (e.g. learning) becomes one objective of management.  It should be noted that AM is a deliberate process, not ad-hoc or simply reactionary. However, flexibility in the approach is important to allow the creativity that is crucial to dealing with uncertainty and change.

AM is a unique tool that is being adopted by various levels of government. In regards to AM and Federal EA processes in Canada, there is recognition that all EAs involve some level of uncertainty regarding the identification of environmental effects, the assessment of their significance and the effectiveness of mitigation measures. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act implicitly recognizes uncertainty by requiring a follow-up program for all projects that undergo an assessment by comprehensive study or a review panel. In response to data generated by the follow-up program or monitoring, the proponent, the responsible authority or the regulated authority is required to initiate adaptive management measures if mitigation is not adequate to eliminate, reduce or control adverse environmental effects.

Danya Al-Haydari is an Environmental Planner at Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited, where she specializes in public consultation, environmental assessment and energy policy. She has coordinated work for the Port Hope and Port Granby Projects, and conducted research on the Port Hope Area Initiative’s Property Value Protection Program. Most recently, she co-authored a paper for the Nuclear Waste Management Organization on community well-being in nuclear host communities.  Danya is a member of the Canadian Nuclear Societyand Women in Nuclear Canada.


About Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited

Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited (HSAL) is a multidisciplinary strategic planning and public affairs consultancy, focused on environmental and land use planning, stakeholder relations (including communications, facilitation, public consultation and engagement), socio-economic impact assessment, communications, engineering and related services. We have the expertise to predict and decipher technical and public policy issues, and significant experience mitigating them, building consensus and attaining even the most complex approvals. For more information, visit
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