The Limits of Acceptable Change Planning System: Second in this series of posts about LAC

The four major components of the LAC planning system and the nine distinct steps of the planning process.

The Limits of Acceptable Change planning system was developed in the USA over a period of years in the early 1980s to address the problems of managing recreational use in national protected areas.

As originally described by Stankey and others in 1985, the LAC planning system included four major components:

  • the specification of acceptable and achievable resource and social conditions, defined by a series of measurable parameters
  • an analysis of the relationship between existing conditions and those judged acceptable
  • identification of management actions necessary to achieve these conditions; and
  • a programme of monitoring and evaluation of management effectiveness

The four components are then expanded into nine distinct steps for the purpose of improving the effectiveness of its implementation. For some protected area management agencies, these steps closely follow existing planning processes, while for others the LAC system may represent a significant departure. What is important is that planners understand the rationale for each step and its sequence in the overall process. By clearly understanding the rationale, the steps can be modified as needed.

This blog post provides a brief overview of each step.

STEP ONE: Identify area special values, issues, and concerns. Host communities and managers meet to identify what special features or qualities within the area require attention, what management problems or concerns have to be dealt with, what issues the public considers important in the area’s management, and what role the area plays in both a regional and national context. Scientists also or become involved because they may often hold information not readily available. The dialogue among scientists, managers and public helps unify agreement about important values and issues. This step encourages a better understanding of the natural resource base, such as the sensitivity of marine environments to recreation use and tourism development, a general concept of how the resource could be managed, and a focus on principal management issues. LAC is very much an issue-driven process; issues identified here will be addressed later.

STEP TWO: Identify and describe recreation opportunity classes or zones. Using marine protected areas as an example: Most marine settings of sufficient size contain a diversity of biophysical features, such as reefs, underwater cliffs, corals, beaches and evidence of human occupation and use. They may vary significantly in terms of the amount and type of development. Likewise, social conditions, such as level and type of use, and types of recreation experiences, vary from place to place. The type of management needed may vary throughout the area. Opportunity classes describe subdivisions or zones of the natural resource where different social, resource, or managerial conditions will be maintained. For example, deeper reef settings will require Scuba gear while in shallower areas snorkels may be adequate.

The shallower areas may also show more impact from human use, such as effects on coral, than deeper areas. The classes that are developed represent a way of defining a range of diverse conditions within the marine setting. And, while diversity is the objective here, it is important to point out that the conditions found in all cases must be consistent with the objectives laid out in the area’s organic legislation or decree. In this step, the number of classes are also defined as well as their general resource, social, and managerial conditions.

STEP THREE: Select indicators of resource and social conditions. Indicators are specific elements of the resource or social setting selected to represent (or be “indicative of”) the conditions deemed appropriate and acceptable in each opportunity class. Because it is impossible to measure the condition of (and change) in every resource or social feature within a protected marine setting, a few indicators are selected as measures of overall health, just as we relatively frequently monitor our blood pressure rather than more complete tests of blood chemistry. Indicators should be easy to measure quantitatively, relate to the conditions specified by the opportunity classes and reflect changes in recreational use. Indicators are an essential part of the LAC framework because their state reflects the overall condition found throughout an opportunity class. It is important to understand that an individual indicator might not adequately depict the condition of a particular area. It is the bundle of indicators that is used to monitor conditions.

(You can read more about the use of indicators for monitoring and evaluation in another of our blog posts here )

STEP FOUR: Inventory existing resource and social conditions. Inventories can be time-consuming and expensive components of planning; indeed they usually are. In the LAC process, the inventory is guided by the indicators selected in the previous. For example, level and type of development, use density, and human-induced impacts on coral might be measured. Other variables, such as location of different corals, shipwrecks, docks, and mooring spots, can also be inventoried to develop a better understanding of area constraints and opportunities. And, inventory information will be helpful later when evaluating the consequences of alternatives. Inventory data are mapped so both the condition and location of the indicators are known. The inventory also helps managers establish realistic and attainable standards. By placing the inventory as STEP FOUR, planners avoid unnecessary data collection.

STEP FIVE: Specify standards for resource and social conditions in each opportunity class. In this step, we identify the range of conditions for each indicator considered appropriate and acceptable for each opportunity class. By defining those conditions in measurable terms, we provide the basis for establishing a distinctive and diverse range of marine settings. Standards serve to define the “limits of acceptable change”. They are the maximum permissible conditions that will be allowed in a specific opportunity class. They are not necessarily objectives to be attained. The inventory data collected in STEP FOUR play an important role in setting standards. We want the standards defining the range of acceptable conditions in each opportunity class to be realistic and attainable; we also want them to do more than mimic existing (unacceptable) conditions.

STEP SIX: Identify alternative opportunity class allocations. Most attractive marine settings could be managed in several different ways. Marine parks often differ significantly in the amount of development, human density (both residents and visitors), and recreational opportunities available. In this step, we begin to identify some different types of alternatives. Using information from STEP ONE (area issues and concerns) and STEP FOUR (inventory of existing conditions), managers and host communities can begin to jointly explore how well different opportunity class allocations address the various contending interests, concerns, and values.

STEP SEVEN: Identify management actions for each alternative. The alternative allocations proposed in STEP SIX  are only the first step in the process of developing a preferred alternative. In addition to the kinds of conditions that would be achieved, both managers and citizens need to know what management actions will be required to achieve the desired conditions. In a sense, STEP SEVEN requires an analysis of the costs, broadly defined, that will be imposed by each alternative. For example, many people may find attractive the alternative to protect a specific area from any development, and restore to pristine condition any impacts that might exist. However, this alternative might require such a huge commitment of funds for acquisition and enforcement that this alternative might not seem as attractive.

STEP EIGHT: Evaluation and selection of a preferred alternative. With the various costs and benefits of the several alternatives before them, managers and citizens can proceed to the evaluation stage, and the managing authority, based on guidance from the public, can select a preferred alternative. Evaluation must take into consideration many factors, but examples would include the responsiveness of each alternative to the issues identified in STEP ONE, management requirements from STEP SEVEN, and public preferences. It is important that the factors figuring into the evaluation process and their relative weight be made explicit and available for public review.

STEP NINE: Implement actions and monitor conditions. With an alternative finally selected, and articulated as policy by decision-makers, the necessary management actions (if any) are put into effect and a monitoring programme instituted. Often, an implementation plan, detailing actions, costs, timetable, and responsibilities, will be needed to ensure timely implementation. The monitoring programme focuses on the indicators selected in STEP THREE, and compares their condition with those identified in the standards. This information can be used to evaluate the success of actions. If conditions are not improving, the intensity of the management effort might need to be increased or new actions implemented.

The LAC process, in summary, provides a framework for thinking about issues of recreation development and management. It is a framework, we believe, that recognises the intrinsic complexity of development issues, yet provides the process to competently deal with this complexity without being excessively reductionist. By combining the technical expertise of planners and scientists with valuable personal knowledge held by the local public (Host Communities), LAC can result in more defensible decisions that have greater chances of implementation.

With acknowledgement to the following sources:

McCool, S.F. 1994. Planning for sustainable nature dependent tourism development: The limits of acceptable change system. Tourism Recreation Research 19(2): 51-55.

Stankey, G.H., and S.F. McCool. 1991. Recreation use limits: The wildland manager’s continuing dilemma. Western Wildlands 16(4): 2-7.

Eagles, Paul F.J., McCool, Stephen F. and Haynes, Christopher D.A. (2002). Sustainable Tourism in Protected Areas: Guidelines for Planning and Management. IUCN Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. xv + 183pp.

Contact Lorton Consulting for professional input on recreational planning in protected areas, Limits of Acceptable Change and the use of indictors for monitoring recreational impacts — we would be more than willing to advise you.



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