Can science-based resource management work?

Lessons from New Mexico's Valles Caldera National Preserve

Although such management, known as adaptive management, has been discussed by land managers and touted by public lands scholars for at least 20 years, the concept has been more talked about than implemented.

The 89,000-acre Valles Caldera, which became federal land in 2000, is one of the few places where adaptive management is taking place. The management of the preserve has been controversial.

"There's a need for a new paradigm of science in land management," said Thomas W. Swetnam, a forest ecologist at The University of Arizona in Tucson and director of UA's Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. "The Valles Caldera has set up this paradigm as an experiment and it's underway."

Swetnam will discuss the history and ecology of the Valles Caldera in northern New Mexico and how science is being incorporated into its management on Friday, Feb. 17, at 9 a.m. local time at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting being held at the America's Center at 701 Convention Plaza, St. Louis.

Swetnam's talk, "The Valles Caldera Landscape: Establishing Science-Based Adaptive Management at VCNP and the Challenges in Building Science-Management," will be presented at the symposium, "Environmental Management: The Valles Caldera Experience," held in on Level Two, Rm. 241 of the America's Center.

"I will talk about what land management can do if it has good support from within and how adaptive management can be accomplished when there's a commitment to invest in science to work hand-in-hand with land management over the long term," he said.

The Valles Caldera Trust manages the preserve and has, from its inception, emphasized science, monitoring and adaptive management as part of its decision-making process. One of the original board members of the trust, Swetnam was instrumental in ensuring that science would be an integral part of preserve management, rather than an afterthought or subsidiary activity.

Instead of having a static land management plan, adaptive management calls for continual science-based monitoring of natural resources in order to adjust management activities as situations change. Traditional land management develops a plan and implements it without explicitly incorporating mechanisms for ongoing assessment and readjustment of the management scheme.

Adaptive management also calls for conducting ongoing experiments on-site to determine how various environmental conditions or management activities affect the natural resources in question, with an eye to incorporating the scientific findings into management activities.

One of the challenges of public lands management is managing the land for many uses. Like many other federal lands, the Valles Caldera National Preserve is managed for multiple use, which includes hunting, outdoor recreation such as hiking, and livestock grazing. Unlike other federal lands, the preserve was established with a mandate to become economically self-sufficient by the year 2015.

Adopting adaptive management is one of the keys to meeting those goals, Swetnam said.

"We need a new approach to integrating science with management. A key way to do this is to build scientists directly into the management structure -- to have scientist/managers," he said.

At the Valles Caldera, the chief scientist has equal status with the preserve manager in the organizational chart. That structure differs from scientists' positions in other federal land management organizations. Very few doctorate-level scientists are on the staffs of national parks or national forests, and generally they have little clout within the organization. The Valles Caldera's management structure is designed to ensure that science is a true partner in the management process, rather than just "nice to have" or ignored when inconvenient or contrary to unproven assumptions, Swetnam said.

Another innovation at Valles Caldera is the explicit integration of community members into management of the preserve. Seven of the nine seats on the board of the Valles Caldera Trust must be held by New Mexico residents.

Swetnam has an intimate knowledge of the region. Although he now lives in Arizona, he grew up in Jemez Springs, about seven miles from the land that is now the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Growing up in the Jemez Mountains fueled his interest in forest ecology. He has carried out numerous tree-ring studies in the Jemez and surrounding mountains over the years and published many papers about his research in the region.

Placing science front-and-center in the management of the Valles Caldera National Preserve is "an experiment in progress -- and an important one," Swetnam said. It's an experiment he anticipates may have a significant influence on how federal lands such as national parks and forests are managed in the future.


Contact information:
Thomas Swetnam, 520-621-2112, 520-405-1832, [email protected]

Thomas W. Swetnam

Valles Caldera National Preserve

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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