Resilience in Land Management Planning: Policy Mandates, Approaches, and Resources

Thomas Timberlake, Courtney Schultz, and Jesse Abrams
Created: 2/12/2018 - Updated: 4/17/2018


Climate change adaptation presents a challenge for federal land management agencies in the United States. Increasingly, these agencies are turning to the concept of resilience to guide planning for an uncertain future. Resilience refers to the ability of a system to withstand disturbances and maintain its general structure and function. However, the concept can be challenging to operationalize, and a range of types of resilience and definitions for the concept exist. Nonetheless, the concept of resilience can aid in planning by emphasizing uncertainty, nonlinearity, adaptability, and consideration of cross-scale linkages. It also requires accepting the inevitability of ecological disturbances, including wildland fires. This working paper aims to provide background and context to support individuals and groups working to implement resilience in various land management planning contexts and we summarize various frameworks for planning for resilience.

Three common types of resilience exist. Engineering resilience is a function of the speed and ease with which a system returns to its equilibrium state following a disturbance. Ecological or social resilience is defined as “the ability of an ecological system or social system to withstand disturbance while still maintaining necessary functions.” Social-ecological resilience is defined as “[the] capacity of an integrated social-ecological system to adapt to disturbance” (Bone et al. 2016). To date, ecological resilience has been the form used most often in federal agency planning.

Various agency policies mandate or encourage the use of resilience in planning. For example, various strategic documents from the U.S. Forest Service emphasize resilience as a key element of climate change adaptation. The concept makes up a component of ecological integrity, a central element of the U.S. Forest Service’s land management planning regulations promulgated in 2012. Accordingly, many planning units working on revising their land management plans are using the concept. The concept also plays a central role in the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. Other agencies such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service are all embracing the concept in adaptation efforts and approaches to responding to disturbances. U.S. Forest Service researchers have developed two cyclical approaches to planning for resilience. The Resilience Alliance has produced a workbook that offers a useful approach to planning for social-ecological resilience, and various other resources, approaches, and data sources are available for a range of contexts, including human communities and specific places.

Based on our review of these mandates and resources, we propose suggestions for how to plan for resilience. Partnerships drawing on scientists, managers across different agencies, and local communities play an important role in planning and executing resilience actions. Breaking up resilience planning into specific steps or phases makes the challenge less daunting and more understandable. These step-bystep processes are cyclical and iterative. It is important to monitor the system and revisit earlier assumptions to modify management activities accordingly. These processes should seek to define the system in question, identify stressors, and use climate projections to understand future conditions. Subsequent working papers will provide more specific recommendations about how to incorporate resilience into land management planning frameworks.


PDF icon WP_77.pdf


Sector Addressed: 
Conservation / Restoration
Land Use Planning
Habitat/Biome Type: