Nebraska makes cover of BioScience

by Ronica Stromberg, Center for Resilience in Agricultural Working Landscapes

land burn
Nebraska scientists use drones to help manage grasslands invaded by redcedar trees. Photo by Craig Allen
December 12, 2023

Lincoln, Neb. —Nebraska figures large in the latest issue of BioScience, with the cover showing Nebraska grasslands on fire and the related story cowritten by Craig Allen, natural resources professor at Nebraska.

The article, “Multi-scale adaptive management of socio-ecological systems,” explains how land managers can adaptively manage complex ecosystems. In adaptive management, people learn as they go.

“People can undergo their normal management or tweaks on their normal management on their properties, while putting in a framework so they can learn over time,” Allen said. “The beauty of it is that you're learning by doing it, and you don't wait for experimental results. You can continue with management alternatives while undergoing your normal operations. You learn as you go and adapt with what works instead of waiting for something to fail and then adapt.”

In the article, the five authors give examples of how people have used adaptive management to tackle the spread of redcedars in grasslands and of common reed in the Platte River.

The authors add the concept of panarchy to the adaptive management framework. A panarchy is a set of varying size scales of nature, as measured by space and time, and the interactions among the scales. So, a set of scales might range from a seed to a tree to a patch of trees to a forest over many periods of time. Including panarchy in the adaptive management framework helps managers consider various scales and what effect management at one scale could have on others, Allen said.

“The idea is that because interventions needed vary with scale, adaptive management needs to also vary with scale and take account of those multiple scales in the system,” Allen said. “So, the management you do at a patch scale would be different from the management you do at a ranch scale, which would differ from the management you do on a landscape. It's not one-size-fits-all.”

He said a difficulty land managers have had handling problems like redcedar trees invading grasslands is that the invasion has typically been managed at whatever size of land a person owns or manages. This scale of management cannot resolve the problem of invasion when the problem has gone beyond that scale.

“If we manage invasive species at a single-patch scale and ignore the invasion at larger scales, our patch-scale management may be moot because we're overwhelmed by invasion across the landscape,” he said.

In the case of redcedar, that invasion can leave cattle without grass to graze, endanger grasslands wildlife, strain water supplies and lead to a slew of other problems.

“One of the big factors that's led to the adoption of adaptive management in many of these complex situations is because other approaches haven’t worked,” Lance Gunderson, coauthor and adaptive management expert, said.

The article states that people have managed ecological systems primarily by following laws like the Endangered Species Act and looking at just a few environmental factors, like species counts in an area, rather than trying to measure changes in the ecosystem itself. Adaptive management tries to measure these changes, respond to them and take care of the entire ecosystem.

“It means that whatever you have in front of you that you're trying to manage, you must take the cross-scale interactions into account,” J. B. Ruhl, coauthor and Vanderbilt law professor, said. “It doesn't necessarily mean that you are able to go upriver and intervene, but what you are doing downriver--just to use a river as an example--you can't just draw a circle around it and say, ‘Okay, we have jurisdiction over this, and so that's what we're going to manage,’ and then look inward without considering, ‘Okay, what are the cross-scale dynamics? Where can we intervene? Where can't we intervene?’ In which case, we have to take into account what's going on there.”

People using adaptive management gather information from stakeholders to identify the scales at which a problem manifests. They use models and simulations to test hypotheses and evaluate what effects the management may have on the ecosystem. They may use artificial intelligence, advances in cyberinfrastructure and automated data collection to help monitor an ecosystem.

The article lays out four steps in managing adaptively, with assessment built in at steps two and four. Allen called this a “sort of guidebook of dealing with the kinds of problems that have a cross-scale nature.”

Gunderson noted adaptive management helps managers structure decision making and learning.

“Adaptive management encourages multiple questions, such as, ‘What are the alternative policies and management actions to control cedar?’ and you try them rather than argue about, ‘We need to do this,’ or “We need to do that’ or we do the one that's most politically feasible or the least costly type of action,” he said. “What adaptive management brings into the mix is ‘Well, which one will allow us to learn more about this system?’ That's why they're really much more useful at the management of these big, complex systems where knowledge and understanding are partial.”

Gunderson also noted that adaptive management is collaborative, and for this article, he and two other ecologists, Allen and David Angeler, collaborated with two legal experts, Ruhl at Vanderbilt University and Ahjond Garmestani at the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Putting lawyers and ecologists in the same room and writing an article together as a way of bridging gaps instead of talking past each other is one way of fostering this kind of interdisciplinary research,” he said.

Allen said he hopes this article will encourage broader adoption of adaptive management, which has tended to be used the most by the government in large projects since emerging in the 1970s.

“It's much better applied at smaller scales where you can actually see a response,” he said. “In multiscale adaptive management, you may be able to see success at the smaller scales much more quickly and while waiting for successes at larger scales.”

Charles Fenster, editor-in-chief of BioScience, said the editorial board and reviewers chose to publish the article because it provides “a more generalizable approach that includes expanding to multiple dimensions to accommodate different stakeholder priorities and multiple ecosystem attributes. This is a significant addition to how we address biological diversity issues in social-ecological systems.”

BioScience is an academic journal publishing biology research since 1964. It has an impact factor of 10.1, placing it in the top 1.9 percent of journals for importance, calculated by the number of times articles are cited within a year.