Adaptive management strategies in the United States Army Corps of Engineers - an analysis

By Scott Kronholm

Within the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), there has been an increased effort to utilize adaptive management strategies in a variety of ecosystem restoration projects. In this context, adaptive management refers to an iterative form of natural resource management that involves the testing, monitoring, and evaluation of applied strategies, followed by the incorporation of newly learned knowledge into future management decisions. As it becomes more difficult and costly to predict what ecosystems will look like in the future, adaptive management provides a set of methods for improving flexibility and learning when creating management plans and policies. That flexibility will be important as managers identify and face current and future challenges to sustainable use of water resources.

Recently the USACE called upon a group of researchers, including Dr. Deborah Swackhamer and Marc Dettman from the University of Minnesota, to determine how adaptive management is currently being utilized in the USACE, and also to make recommendations for improving adaptive management practices within the USACE. The research team conducted several interviews of USACE personnel in an effort to determine how adaptive management is being used in a variety of USACE natural resource management projects.

The responses from the interviewees highlighted some processes that facilitate and improve the usefulness of adaptive management. For example, there are currently a number of reports available to the USACE that can serve as examples of adaptive management in action. These reports offer some guidance toward implementing adaptive management in natural resource management projects. Skilled staff that have experience with adaptive management was also mentioned as an extremely important piece of the adaptive management process. However, in the event that trained and experienced staff members are unavailable, there is the potential to bring in external experts who can aid in the adaptive management process. Stakeholder involvement can also facilitate adaptive management by bringing in local knowledge, assisting in long-term monitoring, and providing timely information back to the managers.

Home > Publications > Minnegram Online > Summer 2013 > Adaptive management strategies in the United States Army Corps of Engineers - an analysis Minnegram Adaptive management strategies in the United States Army Corps of Engineers - an analysis By Scott Kronholm Within the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), there has been an increased effort to utilize adaptive management strategies in a variety of ecosystem restoration projects. In this context, adaptive management refers to an iterative form of natural resource management that involves the testing, monitoring, and evaluation of applied strategies, followed by the incorporation of newly learned knowledge into future management decisions. As it becomes more difficult and costly to predict what ecosystems will look like in the future, adaptive management provides a set of methods for improving flexibility and learning when creating management plans and policies. That flexibility will be important as managers identify and face current and future challenges to sustainable use of water resources. Recently the USACE called upon a group of researchers, including Dr. Deborah Swackhamer and Marc Dettman from the University of Minnesota, to determine how adaptive management is currently being utilized in the USACE, and also to make recommendations for improving adaptive management practices within the USACE. The research team conducted several interviews of USACE personnel in an effort to determine how adaptive management is being used in a variety of USACE natural resource management projects. The responses from the interviewees highlighted some processes that facilitate and improve the usefulness of adaptive management. For example, there are currently a number of reports available to the USACE that can serve as examples of adaptive management in action. These reports offer some guidance toward implementing adaptive management in natural resource management projects. Skilled staff that have experience with adaptive management was also mentioned as an extremely important piece of the adaptive management process. However, in the event that trained and experienced staff members are unavailable, there is the potential to bring in external experts who can aid in the adaptive management process. Stakeholder involvement can also facilitate adaptive management by bringing in local knowledge, assisting in long-term monitoring, and providing timely information back to the managers. Many interviewees mentioned that although there are things in place that can aid adaptive management, it is still having trouble gaining traction within the USACE. The barriers to adaptive management identified by the interviewees did not make the process impossible, but did limit its effectiveness. Mentioned among all interviewees was a lack of coherent message on how to properly implement adaptive management in USACE natural resource management projects. This resulted in some USACE districts developing their own guidance for adaptive management, and other districts disregarding the use of adaptive management almost entirely. Budgetary limitations were also mentioned commonly in interviews as a barrier to successful adaptive management. This was especially true with regard to the mandatory 10 years of environmental monitoring required within adaptive management projects. Many people within the USACE and in congress prefer new projects over monitoring existing projects. And, the large natural variability contained within these projects leads to higher monitoring costs, further exacerbating the issue. Regulations and laws were found to increase coordination time and complexity of projects utilizing adaptive management. Ideally teams implementing adaptive management would be small. However, due to the complexity resulting from the regulations and necessary interactions these teams often are quite large and complex, which increases cost and decreases flexibility and responsiveness of the process. For example, local cost sharing is a requirement of USACE projects, but the adaptive management concept makes it harder to sell a project to local partners due to the perceived extra expense. This often has the effect of turning stakeholders off to the idea of adaptive management. On top of that, there is currently no guidance for engaging stakeholders within the adaptive management framework. The high staff turnover rate within the USACE was also mentioned as an issue that impedes adaptive management, because an experienced staff is vital to successful adaptive management. As trained staff members leave, the lessons and skills for implementing adaptive management have to be re-learned by new members. Lastly, several interviewees mentioned the tension that arises between the congressionally mandated short-term progress and the long-term response of an ecosystem to an adaptive management project.

The researchers evaluated the responses from all interviewees and created five key recommendations for the USACE to consider in an effort to increase the use and success of adaptive management. The first recommendation is for the USACE to develop a set of common reference materials regarding adaptive management, to disseminate those materials throughout the USACE, and to reinforce their commitment to adaptive management regularly. Securing long term funding for the successful implementation of adaptive management is the second recommendation set forth by the research team. In particular, they suggest that the USACE work with other agencies to identify and leverage resources, and develop relationships with the private sector to identify cost sharing opportunities. The researchers also suggest developing training and mentoring programs in an effort to retain the information necessary for adaptive management within, and distributed throughout the USACE. The fourth recommendation is for the USACE to conduct advocacy and awareness campaigns within the district offices. This will help to promote inter-office dialog, sharing of new techniques and knowledge, and standardization of adaptive management terms and methods. Lastly, the research team suggests that the USACE coordinate and collaborate with other agencies on approaches to adaptive management. This will help with communicating the ideas and benefits of adaptive management to a wide range of stakeholders, as well as to congress.

Although several barriers remain, adaptive management is catching on within the USACE and is being incorporated into the planning stages of projects in an effort to address uncertainty and risk early on. Communication within the USACE regarding adaptive management has increased which has led to the sharing of ideas and best practices for use within the adaptive management framework. Seeing as climate change will likely increase the level and scale of uncertainty in the future, adaptive management will offer the USACE a strong footing as they move forward with natural resource management projects.