Motive Project

Article alert: A concept in adaptive ecosystem management - An engineering perspective

by: Ulla Vänttinen

Heinimann, H.R., 2009. A concept in adaptive ecosystem management—An engineering perspective. Forest Ecology and Management, Volume 259, Issue 4, 5 February 2010, Pages 848-856.


Uncertainty how ecosystems will behave and look like in the future has been increasing. Several concepts, such as sustainable, adaptive, or risk-based management, were proposed to cope with uncertain, incomplete knowledge, and with changing environmental conditions. However, there is a lack of agreement what those concepts mean and how they differ from traditional forest management approaches. The paper aims at (1) exploring general systems theory, control theory, and risk management theory for general principles that may be guiding the future development of ecosystem management, and that (2) developing a concept in adaptive ecosystem management that may act as a shared mental model for both scholars and practitioners.

The exploration of systems- and risk-based theories results in decisive foundations of adaptive management: (1) emergence, adaptation, and resilience are fundamental concepts to characterize the dynamic behavior of ecosystems, accounting for their ability for purposeful transformational change. (2) Space–time scale matters. The space–time window of traditional, silviculture-based forestry has been focusing on the patch and stand level, whereas adaptive management has to consider much larger time-space windows, covering a range from the needle to the landscape. (3) Risk-informed management starts with the identification of critical effects, then quantifies the dose–response relationship between exogenous strain and endogenous stress. The paper proposes a concept in adaptive ecosystem management, being founded on three general concepts. First, control theory is the backbone to keep system dynamics within an acceptable range even if external disturbances are acting, the underlying model is based on uncertainties, and if the real process can only be modeled incompletely. Second, adaptive ecosystem management has to focus on processes across different space–time scales instead of looking at the static, “frozen” structures like trees of stands. Third, interaction of processes across space–time scales, characterized by dose–response functions, are the driving forces to shape the long-term development of the systems.

The proposed concept challenges different domains. Research has to improve its understanding of process interactions across space–time scales, characterized by dose–response models, which are essential to understand system robustness (resilience). Higher education related to ecosystem management should refocus on scientific competences to the analysis of complex adaptive systems, and the use of control theory to continuously improve policies and practices for ecosystem management. Practitioners on the ground have to become convinced that the goal of ecosystem management is a “moving target”, consisting of a portfolio of ecosystem goods and services. They have to internalize the principle of “rule discovery” as a systematic learning process to improve management practices and by looking for “biodiversity in our minds”. The paper is expected to trigger discussions among scholars and practitioners, leading to a set of principles for resource use that consider both complexity and dynamics of ecosystems.

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