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Adaptive Management in National Forests

Claire Elizabeth Deuter


  • Looks at the concept of adaptive management as it focuses on systematically incorporating learning into management in light of ecosystem uncertainties.
  • Discusses why the USFS must develop clear standards when using an adaptive management framework to comply with the substantive standards under the ESA.
  • Explains how adaptive forest management provides useful flexibility for managers considering informational gaps in ecosystems, but also poses the issue of reduced enforceability and accountability in management actions.
Adaptive Management in National Forests
Gary Grossman via Getty Images

How should agencies manage an ecosystem in the face of uncertainties and informational gaps? Many agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), turn to adaptive management. Adaptive natural resource management is a concept that was developed in the 1970s by ecologist C. S. “Buzz” Holling and fisheries biologist Carl Walters. Holly Doremus et al., Making Good Use of Adaptive Management, Center for Progressive Reform, White Paper #1104 (2011) at 2. The concept of adaptive management focuses on systematically incorporating learning into management in light of ecosystem uncertainties. Id. Adaptive management instructs managers possess an incomplete understanding of environmental problems, to implement a time learning approach to reduce the uncertainty of environmental problems. Id. Although many definitions of adaptive management exist, Doremus explains that the main elements include 1. explicitly stated management goals and measurable indicators to track progress, 2. an iterative approach to decision-making that allows managers to adjust decisions in light of new information, 3. systematic monitoring of outcomes and impacts, 4. monitoring to provide continuous and systematic learning, 5. explicit identification and characterization of risks and uncertainties, and 6. an overarching goal to minimize uncertainty over time. Id.

USFS incorporated the approach of adaptive management in the agency’s 2012 Planning Regulations. 36 C.F.R. § 219.5. The Planning Regulations call for an “iterative process” for revising and amending land and resource management plans that include 1. assessment; 2. developing, amending, or revising a plan; and 3. monitoring. Id. The framework intends to allow the agency to adapt to changing conditions and “improve management based on new information and monitoring.” Id. USFS also previously incorporated adaptive management in the agency’s 2005 and 2008 Planning Regulations. Courtney Schultz & Martin Nie, Decision-Making Triggers, Adaptive Management, and Natural Resources Law and Planning, 52 Nat. Resources J. 443, 450 (2012). Further, USFS regulations on National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance define adaptive management as:

A system of management practices based on clearly identified intended outcomes and monitoring to determine if management actions are meeting those outcomes; and, if not, to facilitate management changes that will best ensure that those outcomes are met or re-evaluated. Adaptive management stems from the recognition that knowledge about natural resource systems is sometimes uncertain.

36 CFR § 220.3.

Various stakeholders, like agencies and environmental organizations, often disagree over the use of adaptive management in national forests. Agency discretion in the application of adaptive management procedure is the main source of this disagreement. Schultz notes that agencies practice adaptive management with their own goals, values, and biases, which includes the “pursuit of administrative discretion.” Schultz, supra at 449. This “innate administrative tendency to prioritize discretion” sheds light on the controversies over the adaptive management approach. Id. at 450. Agencies may also use adaptive management to promote flexibility and expedited decision-making. Id.

According to Doremus, resource users and the regulated community often argue that adaptive management fails to provide sufficient regulatory certainty. Doremus, supra at 3. This lack of certainty exposes these groups to the risk of costly unanticipated changes, making long-term planning difficult. Id. Many environmentalists fear that adaptive management allows for too much agency discretion, which leads to a lack of agency accountability and exposes “environmental values to the risk of agency capture and bureaucratic inertia.” Id. For example, Schultz explains that USFS management of off-highway vehicles illustrates a failed adaptive management approach. Schultz, supra at 506. Agency regulations stated that vehicle use “will be monitored,” but the agency failed to seriously monitor due to insufficient funding and programmatic failures. Id. at 506–07.

These disagreements have led to litigation over adaptive management in forest project planning. Generally, large-scale plans with longer time frames using adaptive management fare better than smaller, site-specific projects. J.B. Ruhl & Robert L. Fischman, Adaptive Management in the Courts, 95 Minn. L. Rev. 424, 447 (2010). The Northwest Forest Plan (NFP) is an example of a legally viable large-scale plan that incorporates adaptive management. Id. at 449. The NFP is a regional plan that was created under the Clinton administration to address the issue of allowing timber harvesting while maintaining viable populations of northern spotted owls, salmon, and other sensitive species. Id. According to Schultz, the primary components of the NFP are: 1. land allocation with accompanying standards and guidelines, 2. an aquatic conservation strategy to improve watershed health, 3. a comprehensive monitoring program, and 4. the creation of adaptive management areas. Schultz, supra at 487. NFP adaptive management litigation mainly centered on the Plan’s “general principle for implementation and revision of the overall set of management prescriptions.” Ruhl, supra at 449–50.

In Seattle Audubon Society v. Lyons, Judge Dwyer of the Western District Court of Washington upheld the NFP. See Seattle Audubon Soc. v. Lyons, 871 F. Supp. 1291 (W.D. Wash. 1994), aff'd sub nom. Seattle Audubon Soc’y v. Moseley, 80 F.3d 1401 (9th Cir. 1996). There, environmental plaintiffs alleged that the NFP violated various environmental laws, such as NEPA. Id. at 1300. The court disagreed with the environmental groups, stating that the USFS and Bureau of Land Management acted within their lawful scope of discretion in adopting the NFP. Id. In response to the NEPA claim, Judge Dwyer explained that the agencies must implement careful monitoring and consider new information to assure owl viability and that the Plan adequately disclosed risks as required by NEPA. Id. at 1321. In response to a challenge to the Plan’s monitoring program itself, Judge Dwyer found the monitoring program legally sufficient and specifically noted that monitoring “is central to the plan’s viability.” Id. at 1324.

Regarding small-scale and site-specific projects, Ruhl points out that courts tend to strike down adaptive management approaches if the approach does not ensure compliance with substantive standards mandated by environmental statutes. Ruhl, supra at 461–62. Substantive standard examples include the “no jeopardy” standard in the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the species population viability standard in the National Forest Management Act. Id. at 462. Agencies cannot simply promise to plan and manage in compliance with these substantive standards. Id. Instead, courts require agencies to “develop records showing how they will meet substantive standards.” Id.

USFS must develop clear standards when using an adaptive management framework to comply with the substantive standards under the ESA. In Greater Yellowstone Coal. v. Servheen, USFS lacked clear standards regarding grizzly bear management in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Greater Yellowstone Coalition v. Servheen, 672 F. Supp. 2d 1105 (D. Mont. 2009). There, the issue was whether to vacate the decision to delist Yellowstone grizzlies from the ESA. Schultz, supra at 462. Before delisting a species, “sufficient regulations must be in place” to ensure the long-term conservation of the species. Id. The Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy, which included forest plan amendments within the Yellowstone grizzly habitat boundaries, was specifically at issue. Id. The court found the Strategy’s Forest Plan amendments inadequate. Id. at 463. USFS invoked an adaptive management approach in the amendments through a vague statement, simply stating that “[t]he direction in this amendment embraces an adaptive management approach––as conditions change, so will management direction.” Id. The amendments provided very few enforceable standards and relied largely on “discretionary and legally unenforceable” guidelines. Id. The court held that the USFS’s adaptive management approach here was far too vague to ensure substantive standard compliance under the ESA. Id.

Another example of an inadequate adaptive management approach is when an agency fails to complete an effects analysis under NEPA by simply calling for future studies. In Mountaineers v. U.S. Forest Service, the Forest Service prepared an environmental assessment (EA) and a finding of no significant impacts (FONSI) for a project to construct a bridge, improve a campground, build infrastructure for helicopter landings, and relocate sections of trails. Mountaineers v. U.S. Forest Serv., 445 F. Supp. 2d 1235, 1238 (W.D. Wash 2006). The court invalidated the FONSI because the USFS relied on wildlife studies that merely proposed use models that “could theoretically be studied in the future.” Id. at 1246. The court held that the EA did not comply with NEPA because NEPA requires agencies to analyze project effects before the project begins. Id. Saving the effects analysis until after the project begins is not a legally viable form of adaptive management under NEPA. Id.        

Adaptive management remains a contentious forest management approach. It provides useful flexibility for managers in light of informational gaps in ecosystems, but also poses the issue of reduced enforceability and accountability in management actions. As illustrated by case law, courts tend to uphold agency adaptive management approaches in large-scale land management plans. Courts, however, may hold forest managers accountable for inadequate adaptive management approaches under substantive legal standards. For now, so long as the USFS operates within the legal boundaries of statutory mandates, adaptive management is an approach the agency may implement.