Boaters on the Everglades

Future-Proofing Nature’s Curveballs: All About Adaptive Management Planning

Jane Marsh - January 28, 2024

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Modeling predictions can illuminate the planet’s future but won’t warn us about every ecological event. In recent years, the world has seen wildfires burn through communities, followed by flash floods and scorching droughts in the days after. When climate change and human-caused disasters upend the natural world, an adaptive management plan can aid restoration and help it thrive for future generations.

Imagine adaptive management as a guide to embracing change. These plans help participants set clear goals based on science and the actions needed to achieve results. 

Let’s define adaptive management planning and its different components, read through examples of well-known plans and learn about the many challenges conservationists face during implementation. 

What Is Adaptive Management Planning?

Uncertainty will always plague the environment, whether the threat of a natural disaster or a human-induced event. Conservationists must learn to adapt their efforts according to ecological, societal, and economic needs, determining which management strategies will be most effective in developing long-term solutions.

Adaptive management planning is used to uncover adequate management strategies and expand existing objectives for better results. Essentially, the concept is “learning by doing” and allows experts to measure how well the environment responds to various measures.

The benefits of adaptive management planning include the following:

  • Restoring and managing natural habitats to smooth ecosystem adaptations
  • Increase plant and animal biodiversity by creating more resilient ecosystems
  • Boost ecosystem and cultural services for climate change adaptation
  • Reduced climate change risks for society

For example, adaptive management planning of preserved forests may reduce landslide probabilities in vulnerable communities as climate-induced precipitation increases. 

You can also implement these procedures in other situations, from air quality to watershed management to soil conservation for improved agriculture. Healthy soil is essential for carbon sequestration and ample crop yields to feed a hungry population.

Components of an Adaptive Management Plan

All adaptive management plans require stakeholder participation — such as government agencies, private businesses, the scientific community, and the public — to succeed. 

While the specific sections in a plan vary by project, each is constructed on a few critical components to progress conservation efforts. Typically, the elements of a comprehensive adaptive management plan include the following:

  • Background information: Addresses the problem at hand, and describes the project and reasoning behind using an adaptive management approach. 
  • Goals and objectives: Highlights the overarching and more specific goals of the project — should include SMART goals, meaning those that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.
  • Implementation and management activities: Details whatever actions will be taken to achieve the project goals, including logistics, implementation strategies, scheduling, and potential impacts.
  • Monitorization: Describes how ongoing efforts will be monitored in the short and long term, including critical indicators for data collection, methods, and frequency.
  • Rules and triggers: Determines rules for adapting management practices based on data, how results are synthesized, and decision-making processes.

Other essential items include a section about the project’s stakeholders — including their roles — communication methods, budgets, tools and resources, reporting procedures, and risk management. One must always know the potential risks that could affect the project. 

Remember, this is only a framework for adaptive management planning. Each project will look different. As long as the plan covers all specific needs, it should enable conservationists to reach their goals.

Adaptive Management Planning in Action

Adaptive management plans exist worldwide. In the United States, they’re often implemented at the federal, state, and local levels, spanning thousands of acres to rural and urban areas to coastlines. To fully comprehend how adaptive management planning aids conservation, looking at the following cases is helpful.

The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP)

Congress passed CERP in 2000 as a guide for restoring, preserving and protecting the Florida Everglades. The plan had a $10.5 billion budget with a 35-plus-year timeline, making it the largest restoration project in the U.S. 

The primary stakeholders and decision-makers are the South Florida Natural Resources Center and the National Park Service, which work together to maintain park resources — including clean water and ecological services — for future generations.

Some of the primary projects within CERP include the following:

CERP’s phases are equally important for providing clean drinking water resources to Florida’s growing population and preventing flooding.

Mid-Basin Sediment Diversion Program 

The Mid-Basin Sediment Diversion Program’s primary goal is to reconnect the Mississippi River to wetlands in Louisiana. From 1932 to 2016, Louisiana lost 2,006 square acres of land due to major hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike. Other factors include sea-level rise, saltwater intrusion, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and a faulty levee system.

Although levees have protected coastal communities from floods, they have also restricted sediment and nutrient deposits from the Mississippi River for healthy wetland ecosystems. 

The primary projects include the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion and the Mid-Breton Sediment Diversion. The Mid-Barataria endeavor was implemented on the Mississippi River’s west bank in August 2023 and will become the largest eco-infrastructure project in the country upon completion.

Both projects will help restore wetlands to prevent future flooding, improve water quality through pollution filtration, and boost employment in the surrounding areas. 

South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project

The South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project is a multi-decade adaptive management plan covering several counties near the San Francisco Bay Area. Conservation efforts entail restoring 15,100 acres of natural tidal wetlands from former industrial salt ponds, offering new habitat for threatened and endangered species, flood protection, and recreational opportunities. 

The plan is a collaborative effort among the California State Coastal Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the California Department of Fish and Game.

Adaptive management plays a vital role in the various project phases — the process cannot move forward without it. Should insights identify substantial problems during tidal habitat transitions, stakeholders must re-evaluate the actions and regulations. 

Challenges and Considerations

One of the key challenges of adaptive management planning includes dealing with complex ecological systems and unpredictability. An adaptive management strategy requires flexibility —stakeholders must identify interventions and recourse depending on new data. Other challenges are as follows:

  • The constant fluctuation of data — such as climate models — makes historical insights less relevant to future management
  • Applying more localized strategies to large-scale projects and vice versa
  • Insufficient monitoring resources and budgets
  • Poor stakeholder trust and engagement, particularly conflicting interests and power struggles
  • Political, social, and cultural resistance to change
  • Poor communication and transparency

Adaptive management planning is critical in addressing complicated ecological issues despite the many challenges. Stakeholders must embrace ongoing learning, evaluate lessons, and implement new actions to strengthen their approach.

Conserving the Planet Through Adaptive Management

An adaptive management plan likely backs every successful conservation approach. Whether you’re a scientist, small business owner, government worker, or private citizen, participation in adaptive management planning is the key to a brighter, more ecologically sound future.

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About the author

Jane Marsh

Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.