The Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program (AMP) has been identified as a model for natural resource management. We challenge that assertion, citing the lack of progress toward a long-term management plan for the dam, sustained extra-programmatic conflict, and a downriver ecology that is still in jeopardy, despite over ten years of meetings and an expensive research program. We have examined the primary and secondary sources available on the AMP’s design and operation in light of best practices identified in the literature on adaptive management and collaborative decision-making. We have identified six shortcomings: (1) an inadequate approach to identifying stakeholders; (2) a failure to provide clear goals and involve stakeholders in establishing the operating procedures that guide the collaborative process; (3) inappropriate use of professional neutrals and a failure to cultivate consensus; (4) a failure to establish and follow clear joint fact-finding procedures; (5) a failure to produce functional written agreements; and (6) a failure to manage the AMP adaptively and cultivate long-term problem-solving capacity.

Adaptive management can be an effective approach for addressing complex ecosystem-related processes like the operation of the Glen Canyon Dam, particularly in the face of substantial complexity, uncertainty, and political contentiousness. However, the Glen Canyon Dam AMP shows that a stated commitment to collaboration and adaptive management is insufficient. Effective management of natural resources can only be realized through careful attention to the collaborative design and implementation of appropriate problem-solving and adaptive-management procedures. It also requires the development of an appropriate organizational infrastructure that promotes stakeholder dialogue and agency learning. Though the experimental Glen Canyon Dam AMP is far from a success of collaborative adaptive management, the lessons from its shortcomings can foster more effective collaborative adaptive management in the future by Congress, federal agencies, and local and state authorities.