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Adaptive management in river restoration : theory vs. practice in western North America

  • Author(s): Levine, Jessie;
  • et al.

Adaptive management is a resource management approach that acknowledges our limited understanding of how natural systems respond to human alterations by treating policies and management interventions in natural systems as experiments from which to learn. In a relatively new field such as river restoration, adaptive management is especially appealing, as it allows managers to learn while acting and promises to reduce uncertainty. By interviewing practitioners and reviewing restoration and adaptive management plans, I assessed the application of adaptive management in ten river restoration projects on the west coast of North America. Although definitions and applications of adaptive management vary widely among practitioners, the projects considered here share three common elements: recognition of uncertainty in river restoration and management, a commitment to monitor, and willingness to adjust actions based on information learned about the system. Most interviewees noted that it is too early to single out any positive ecological or social outcomes or even specific knowledge gained about the system through adaptive management; moreover, the site specific conditions of each stream have largely precluded knowledge transfer between restoration efforts. Practitioners identified a considerable number of barriers in attempting to implement adaptive management. Social and institutional challenges include high costs and limited availability of funding, a mismatch between the lengthiness of the adaptive management process and short funding cycles, agency and stakeholder impatience with the slow pace of adaptive management, a lack of leadership for monitoring and coordinating efforts, and risk aversion among agency personnel and stakeholders. Technical challenges encountered include a limited understanding of how to apply adaptive management and difficulties in translating results from site-level restoration projects to an understanding of the river system. The case study analyses suggest that the successful application of adaptive management will require long-term and stable funding, a long-term institutional commitment, greater leadership, more structured coordination, and training for resource managers.

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