Integrating Adaptive Management and Ecosystem Services Concepts to Improve Natural Resource Management: Challenges and Opportunities

May 7, 2018 | Rebecca Epanchin-Niell, James W. Boyd, Molly K. Macauley, Lynn Scarlett, Carl D. Shapiro, Byron K. Williams


This report explores how ecosystem services can be moved from concept into practice through connection to a decision framework—adaptive management—that accounts for inherent uncertainties.


Natural resource managers must make decisions that affect broad-scale ecosystem processes involving large spatial areas, complex biophysical interactions, numerous competing stakeholder interests, and highly uncertain outcomes. Natural and social science information and analyses are widely recognized as important for informing effective management. Chief among the systematic approaches for improving the integration of science into natural resource management are two emergent science concepts, adaptive management and ecosystem services. Adaptive management (also referred to as “adaptive decision making”) is a deliberate process of learning by doing that focuses on reducing uncertainties about management outcomes and system responses to improve management over time. Ecosystem services is a conceptual framework that refers to the attributes and outputs of ecosystems (and their components and functions) that have value for humans.

This report explores how ecosystem services can be moved from concept into practice through connection to a decision framework—adaptive management—that accounts for inherent uncertainties. Simultaneously, the report examines the value of incorporating ecosystem services framing and concepts into adaptive management efforts.

Adaptive management and ecosystem services analyses have not typically been used jointly in decision making. However, as frameworks, they have a natural—but to date underexplored—affinity. Both are policy and decision oriented in that they attempt to represent the consequences of resource management choices on outcomes of interest to stakeholders. Both adaptive management and ecosystem services analysis take an empirical approach to the analysis of ecological systems. This systems orientation is a byproduct of the fact that natural resource actions affect ecosystems—and corresponding societal outcomes—often across large geographic scales. Moreover, because both frameworks focus on resource systems, both must confront the analytical challenges of systems modeling—in terms of complexity, dynamics, and uncertainty.

Given this affinity, the integration of ecosystem services analysis and adaptive management poses few conceptual hurdles. In this report, we synthesize discussions from two workshops that considered ways in which adaptive management approaches and ecosystem service concepts may be complementary, such that integrating them into a common framework may lead to improved natural resource management outcomes. Although the literature on adaptive management and ecosystem services is vast and growing, the report focuses specifically on the integration of these two concepts rather than aiming to provide new definitions or an indepth review or primer of the concepts individually.

Key issues considered include the bidirectional links between adaptive decision making and ecosystem services, as well as the potential benefits and inevitable challenges arising in the development and use of an integrated framework. Specifically, the workshops addressed the following questions:

  • How can application of ecosystem service analysis within an adaptive decision process improve the outcomes of management and advance understanding of ecosystem service identification, production, and valuation?
  • How can these concepts be integrated in concept and practice?
  • What are the constraints and challenges to integrating adaptive management and ecosystem services?
  • And, should the integration of these concepts be moved forward to wider application—and if so, how?