Adaptive Management Program: Improving Decision-Making and Accountability

Washington has long struggled to balance two important aspects of its natural resource management:

  • First, the state’s $28 billion timber industry, which employs some 42,000 workers
  • Second, the industry's effect on the environmental health of millions of acres of private forests and their associated watersheds

For years, various groups with competing interests in how to manage the forests relied on contentious litigation to settle those differences. The Legislature created the state’s Adaptive Management Program, within the Department of Natural Resources, more than 20 years ago. Legislators saw it as a way to update forest practices rules and guidance through a science-based approach. In addition, it would help avoid costly legal cases.

The Adaptive Management Program is tasked with adapting forest-management policies and practices based on the results of scientific tests. The goal is creating and maintaining sustainable natural resources, while allowing the timber industry to thrive. However, members of the program's governing body, the Forest Practices Board, and other stakeholders have expressed concern about persistent and significant delays in the decision-making processes. As a result, we conducted this performance audit to seek the cause of delays and remedies to resolve the program's problems.

Read a two-page summary of the report.

Report Number 1027818 Report Credits

Key results

After adopting a number of science-based rules in its early years, the program is not currently operating as intended. Two key causes are the unanimous voting requirement and participants’ reluctance to make use of the dispute resolution process when consensus cannot be achieved.

The audit offers recommendations to move the process forward, including adopting an alternative to the 100 percent consensus decision model, a net-gains approach to decision making, and mandatory dispute resolution. Without these types of changes, the very mechanisms that were put into place to prevent legal battles will continue to impede the decision-making process and put the state at risk of ending up back in court.


Adaptive management was formally incorporated into Washington’s forest policy-setting processes in 1999 to balance competing interests in forest management. Stakeholders include those from the timber industry, tribes, environmentalists, and state, county and federal government officials. The ultimate goal of the Adaptive Management Program’s work is to create and maintain sustainable natural resource systems – such as forests or watersheds — while allowing the timber industry to thrive. Decision-makers rely on science-based experiments to move forward to amend or let stand a wide array of policies.

In recent years, sluggish progress on projects and unmade decisions raised concerns. The rules the program tests and evaluates were developed more than 20 years ago. Testing environmental issues in the timber industry, where growth of products is measured in years, can involve long and complicated project plans. However, the program does have deadlines for some rules that must comply with federal laws.

Those laws include the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. One important rule that must be tested for compliance with those laws is still pending after years of research.

Disfunctional program processes

The audit confirmed the program is not operating as intended. The purpose of adaptive management is to create a nimble process to update rules based on scientific information. While rule changes are not the only measure of success, the program has produced only two science-based rules since 2006. The program has languished for two key reasons:

  • A requirement for a unanimous vote — at every one of a many steps  in a complex series of approval points — means one caucus can block a project from moving forward. Dispute resolution is supposed to resolve disagreements, but has rarely been invoked.
  • Program rules and guidance are not set up to ensure participants follow all the requirements. For example, where the law says they must use dispute resolution, the program manual describes it as optional.

In addition to the issues created by the unanimous voting requirement, most studies are delayed. Projects can stray from schedules in part because the program has no consistent or centralized way to track them.

Why change is needed

At present, neither the program rules nor the manual make anyone responsible for holding participants accountable for their actions. One consequence is that participants feel an overall lack of trust within the program. Most said the original vision of the Timber Fish Wildlife Agreement has failed, which has led to discouragement among the people involved.

The Adaptive Management Program was created to facilitate cooperative solutions and avoid costly litigation. However, if the program does not improve its processes, the state risks penalties for failing to meet federal requirements. The program is falling behind on meeting Clean Water Act milestones. Furthermore, a representative from a federal oversight agency says the program is not meeting requirements of the Habitat Conservation Plan. Finally, participants agree lawsuits are a likely consequence of program failure.

Changes to alleviate delays

  • Adopt an alternative to consensus decision-making model currently in rule (WAC 222-12-045) and the board manual. We noted this change would require a consensus vote by the Forest Practices Board.
  • Require participation from high-level principals from each caucus on the Policy committee and on the board
  • Update language in the board manual to reflect WAC: dispute resolution process is required” whenever consensus cannot be achieved within either Science or Policy committees
  • The board should set a trigger for dispute resolution
  • Use a “net gains” approach to each proposal, project, and decision that benefits more than one caucus by considering packages of projects instead of individual projects
  • Adopt decision criteria for determining actions that will take place subject to project results before projects begin

Changes to improve accountability

  • Ensure a peer review of the entire science program is conducted every five years. Opportunities for public comment on those five years should also be given, as stated in WAC. Update the manual to reflect this requirement.
  • Create an on-boarding or training process so new members will have the necessary understanding of roles and responsibilities as well as ground rules.
  • Develop procedures to ensure required biennial performance audits are conducted on the program by DNR or an appropriate state agency or contractor.
  • Implement a tracking system that follows each stage of a project and continuously shows how that work and the results of that work align with the goals of the program.

Changes to improve transparency

Create a public-facing dashboard that provides real time information. Items that should be considered for inclusion in the dashboard include:

  • A list of all rules the program is expected to address
  • A list of current and past projects with their budgets and schedules, including reasons for any delays
  • A list of future projects with timelines and dependencies, such as deadlines imposed by other agencies

Legislative recommendations

  • Require the Forest Practices Board give the appropriate natural resource committees periodic updates on the Adaptive Management Program’s progress on its projects and reaching its program mandates.
  • If the board cannot reach consensus necessary to change the rule (WAC 222-12-045) governing consensus decision-making to an alternative method of voting, we recommend the Legislature change the program voting structure in RCW.