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International Journal of Commons

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adaptive management, ecosystem services, complex adaptive system


Environmental Law | Law


Managing the wildland-urban interface (WUI) is a widely-recognized land use problem plagued by a fractured geography of land parcels, management jurisdictions, and governance mandates and objectives. People who work in this field have suggested a variety of approaches to managing this interface, from informal governance to contracting to insurance. To date, however, none of these scholars has fully embraced the dynamism, uncertainty, and complexity of the WUI—that is, its status as a complex adaptive system. In focusing almost exclusively on the management of this interface to control wildfire, this scholarship largely ignores the fact that rampant wildfire is itself the product of incursions into important ecosystem services on both sides of the interface. In many cases, people tend to expand out towards the wildland not just for economics (cheaper housing) but also because of a suite of ecosystem services that are readily accessible at the interface, including aesthetics, a cleaner environment, and recreational opportunities. As the wildfire problem amply demonstrates, these settlers then become upset when other aspects of ecosystem function invade their lives, but those invasions include not just wildfire disasters but also more pernicious problems such as diseases, allergens, and wildlife. As such, development at the WUI can create a multifaceted desire to control several “undesirable” aspects of ecosystem function while simultaneously promoting the ecosystem services that residents desire, complicating land use management on both sides of a line that is itself often moving or transforming into a transition or buffer zone. To focus solely on wildfire, in other words, may oversimplify an increasingly complex management problem with significant policy implications. While we cannot and will not attempt to resolve all of these policy issues in this article, we do propose that adaptive management may provide a mechanism for dealing with the complexity of managing changing ecosystem functions and services at the WUI, even when—and perhaps especially because—the private lands and wildlands are usually subject to different land use regimes. We begin with an overview of adaptive management, then discuss the hard but common case of fractured landscape management. We then explore the potential for adaptive management to help negotiate this fractured landscape in a changing world, starting with the classic issue of wildfire management but also suggesting possible expansions.



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