A sequence of works has outlined, tested, and expanded the theory and practice of adaptive environmental assessment and management since the late 1960s. The first exercise in adaptive management was the Gulf Island Recreational Land Simulation study in 1968, where the participants attempted to explore ways to bridge gaps among scientific disciplines, technical experts, and policy designers. C. S. Holling and his colleagues introduced the concepts of adaptive management and results of various early attempts at implementation in the 1978 compendium Adaptive Environmental Assessment and Management. In 1982, the Canadian government commissioned a review and evaluation of the approach. Carl Walters presented theory and methods for dealing with the uncertainties of managing resources in the classic book Adaptive Management of Renewable Resources, which was published in 1986. In 1993, Kai Lee related the experience in the Columbia River basin of using adaptive management concepts to guide decision making in a social and political arena in his book, Compass and Gyroscope. Continuing the series in 1995 is the volume Barriers and Bridges to the Renewal of Ecosystems and Institutions, which presents a series of case studies on resource management histories and comments by social scientists in order to test ideas about the coevolution of ecosystems and management institutions. Recent ideas of adaptive management appeared in 2002 in Panarchy; Understanding Transformations in Systems of Humans and Nature which focuses on developing theoretical frameworks for why systems are so surprising based upon cross-scale dynamics (in space and time), and Navigating Social-Ecological Systems. Building Resilience for Complexity and Change which focused on approaches to management in social-ecological systems.

Adaptive management was proposed to fill three perceived gaps in extant management approaches. The first is to bridge diverging assumptions (mental models or paradigms) of resource dynamics; the second is to integrate differing perspectives among scientific disciplines; and third is to fill the breach between knowledge and action. Adaptive management was originally treated as adaptive environmental assessment and management (AEAM) to describe separate but linked processes of integrated assessment and active management. The main process during the integrative assessment aims to articulate assumptions of resource dynamics and integrate disciplinary perspectives and assess what is known and not known about resource issues. The most common approach at integration is to construct a computer model in a series of workshops that attempts to summarize and synthesize existing information and understanding in order to propose a set of policy options. Those options then generate a set of plausible management actions that help test the uncertainties of managing with incomplete knowledge and information, while confronting complexities of resource systems.

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