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Environ Manage. 2004 Jul;34(1):38-51. Epub 2004 May 28.

Land management in the American southwest: a state-and-transition approach to ecosystem complexity.

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USDA-ARS, Jornada Experimental Range, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico 88003, USA.


State-and-transition models are increasingly being used to guide rangeland management. These models provide a relatively simple, management-oriented way to classify land condition (state) and to describe the factors that might cause a shift to another state (a transition). There are many formulations of state-and-transition models in the literature. The version we endorse does not adhere to any particular generalities about ecosystem dynamics, but it includes consideration of several kinds of dynamics and management response to them. In contrast to previous uses of state-and-transition models, we propose that models can, at present, be most effectively used to specify and qualitatively compare the relative benefits and potential risks of different management actions (e.g., fire and grazing) and other factors (e.g., invasive species and climate change) on specified areas of land. High spatial and temporal variability and complex interactions preclude the meaningful use of general quantitative models. Forecasts can be made on a case-by-case basis by interpreting qualitative and quantitative indicators, historical data, and spatially structured monitoring data based on conceptual models. We illustrate how science- based conceptual models are created using several rangeland examples that vary in complexity. In doing so, we illustrate the implications of designating plant communities and states in models, accounting for varying scales of pattern in vegetation and soils, interpreting the presence of plant communities on different soils and dealing with our uncertainty about how those communities were assembled and how they will change in the future. We conclude with observations about how models have helped to improve management decision-making.

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