Adaptive Collaboration

by Grant A. Mincy

Adaptive collaborative management (ACM) is a model of conflict resolution developed to resolve complex problems requiring collective action. Going beyond personal points of view, this management style implores science, politics and underlying interests to come together to confront conflict. ACM tries to develop resolutions to benefit all points of view. Though there are some very real challenges to achieving these resolutions, it has become increasingly clear that the challenges facing us in the 21st century will require collective action. These challenges will require differing ideologies to make difficult compromises to ensure our sustainability. ACM is an effective instrument in bringing competing interests together to make these difficult decisions. Adaptive collaboration is a more democratic approach to natural resource conflict resolution, as opposed to the traditional top down, bureaucratic approach

ACM can best be described by a simple model, composed of four levels. As practitioners follow the model, each level is designed to alleviate conflict and promote compromise among opposing sides of a conflict. The model is as follows: ACM first distinguishes what the conflict is about, followed by why the conflict exists, this then implores individuals to develop options for a plan of action, finally, establishes an action plan to potentially end the conflict. Determining what the conflict is about allows each party to voice their perspectives and concerns about the conflict. This allows all members of the ACM process to state their positions while allowing interests, motives and feelings to be heard by the entire group. The groundwork for collaboration is laid by discussing why the conflict exists. First, this process calls for focusing on the problem at hand while considering all underlying interests. This allows the participants to then examine and understand the emotional link to all involved, thus humanizing arguments. While examining different points of view, stakeholders may begin to find common ground. The model then shifts to a more progressive approach to resolve the conflict at hand.

ACM2There are many consequences involved in both succeeding at ACM and in failing. Success in the process leads to a number of desirable outcomes. The most important may be the emergence of pragmatic community leadership. In regards to natural resource management, this is important because it merges differing opinions together to promote sustainable resource use. This, in turn, promotes environmental stewardship and practices beneficial to natural resource management. The new sense of stewardship will positively benefit the development of a community while reducing impacts to the environment. On the other hand, failure to reach collaboration on natural resource management practices will result in prolonged harmful effects to the environment and halt sustainable community development.

Those practicing natural resource management in the 21st century have their work cut out for them. We are approaching a point in Earth’s history where all of humanity will be forced to deal with anthropogenic impacts to the biosphere. We now live in a time where we can physically see and experience the impact of our ecological footprint. There is a true human dominance of all global systems. This dominance is now effecting a range of topics from human health to the politics we address. As we further encroach on natural systems, the transmission of new diseases to humans from animals and insects is growing rapidly (Shah, 2009). A hotbed political issue in the United States right now is immigration reform. Studies suggest that a number of Mexican farmers may start moving north due to the effects of climate change to their crop yields (Cattan, 2010). There are many more examples of the connection between human impacts to the biosphere and current affairs. The question is, how should human civilization address these issues?

The implications of these challenges require the science of resource management to rapidly change in the face of great uncertainty for the future. This uncertainty has been created by global environmental change, neo-liberal economic policy and the globalization of the world economy. We must start questioning the long-term implications of the use of our natural resources, while paying attention to societal demands and well-being in a globalized market (Franklin, 2008). Natural scientists, social scientists, politicians, the private sector and the public must start working together to restore the biosphere, protect bio-diversity and promote sustainability. We must be honest about the limitations of our natural ecosystems and implement policies that best fit the needs, health and demands of an informed society. In doing so, resource managers can help the long-term health of the biosphere. (Franklin, 2008). ACM is one mechanism that, if used openly and responsibly, can merge competing interests together democratically to better the planet.

Perhaps the most important attribute of ACM is the insistent inclusiveness and diversity of ideas. This allows practitioners to move forward with the best plans possible. This diversity, however, has very large implications for traditional leadership. ACM can be used as an argument to promote the redistribution of power, to champion ideas that benefit people, the true market form and the environment. This idea of collaborative engagement will give all citizens a larger voice in the decision-making process as it rejects the top down approach to resource utility. 

town-hall-meeting-hallA case example of this style of leadership is the unprecedented actions by the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), William Ruckelshaus, in 1983 in regards to a copper plant near Tacoma, Washington. The copper plant was owned by the American Smelting and Refining Company (Asarco) and was the only refining plant in the country to use copper ore with high levels of arsenic, which is known to cause cancer. Ruckelshaus was authorized, under the Federal Clean Air Act, to decide what to do about the plant. This was a politically dangerous issue because although Asarco was regarded as a long time polluter, the company had also offered employment to many generations and was a significant part of the local economy. This environmental battle was framed in the context of jobs versus health (Heifetz).

On July 12th, 1983 Ruckelshaus chose to engage the citizens of Tacoma in the decision-making process instead of exercising authority from Washington. This sent waves of discontent through DC and Tacoma. Ruckelshaus took heat from his colleagues at the EPA, from the press and from the citizens of Tacoma. One citizen is quoted: “We elected people to run our government; we don’t expect them to turn around and ask us to run it for them” (Heifetz). This is scary because democracy does not come through governmental institutions (nor corporate institutions). Grass roots initiative is essential to democracy as this truly represents the demands of the public. Ruckelshaus put the authority of the government back in control of the people (well, that is a stretch, but for the sake of argument…). As a result, the public started talking about taking advantage of the situation to diversify their local economy. Instead of choosing between jobs and health, the people of Tacoma chose both. The plant (eventually) shut down and in its place new, robust markets emerged (Hiefetz). This is an example of people collaborating with government; there are examples of collaboration with the market economy as well.


Sadly, we live in an era of anthropocentric use of the bio-sphere. Human consumption trends are at an all time high and with a globalized market show no sign of slowing down. The harsh reality of today is that instead of preserving nature for nature’s sake, we may achieve more for the biosphere if we begin preserving nature for our own well-being (Armsworth ET. Al, 2007). This idea is the basis for capitalist based solutions to conserve the biosphere. The idea that human beings are separate from, or above the rules of nature is not only dated but dangerous. A popular trend among ecologists and conservation biologists is to promote ecosystem services to save bio-diversity. This has the potential to revolutionize the state capitalist system. I do not find this approach to be desirable but the best chance we have at success in the short-term. In the long-term, with the rise of social democracy, I believe resource utility will become community based microgeneration

Though the future is uncertain and an uphill battle awaits us, ACM gives us the tools necessary to effectively manage our future. If used responsibly, in a sustained effort, the model can be used to resolve conflict and promote sustainability practices. ACM is also rather inspiring in that the concept demands an informed and engaged public. A people’s movement to become actively involved in collaboration is central to the models idea of diversity and inclusiveness. Though there are severe challenges in achieving collaboration, we must closely examine our shortcomings to ensure a growing rate of progress. ACM can continually be improved upon to ensure challenges are met and actions are set in motion to better every aspect of health and life on Earth. We will succeed because we must, after all, our species is mortal.



Armsworth, Paul ET Al. “Ecosystem Service Science and the Way Forward for Conservation.” Conservation Biology, Vol 21, No. 6. Society for Conservation Biology. 2007.

Cattan, Nacha. “Climate Change Set to Boost Mexican Immigration to the US, Says Study.” The Christian Science Monitor. 2010.

Franklin, Jerry. “Preparing for an Uncertain World: Talking With Jerry Franklin. The Forestry Source. Corvallis OR, 2008.

Heifetz, Ronald. “Leadership Without Easy Answers.” The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. London, England.

Robbins, Jim. “Anger Over Culling of Yellowstone’s Bison.” The New York Times. New York, 2008.

Rolle, Su. “Measure of Progress for Collaboration: Case Study of the Applegate Partnership.” United States Forest Service. Ashland, OR 2002.

Shah, Sonia. “The Spread of New Diseases: The Climate Connection.” Yale Environment 360. Yale University. 2009.

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “Little Book of Conflict Resolution.” UTK Conflict Resolution Program. Knoxville, TN 1995.