Tropical forest management increasingly is challenged by multiple, complex, intersecting, and in many cases unprecedented changes in the environment that are triggered by human activity. Many of these changes are associated with the Anthropocene—a new geologic epoch in which humans have become a dominating factor in shaping the biosphere. Ultimately, as human activity increasingly influences systems and processes at multiple scales, we are likely to see more extraordinary and surprising events, making it difficult to predict the future with the level of precision and accuracy needed for broad-scale management prescriptions. In this context of increasing surprise and uncertainty, learning, flexibility, and adaptiveness are essential to securing ecosystem resilience and sustainability, particularly in complex systems such as tropical forests. This article examines the experience to date with and potential for collaborative, adaptive land and resource management in the El Yunque National Forest (EYNF)—the only tropical forest in the U.S. National Forest System. The trajectory of EYNF policy and practice over time and its capacity for learning, flexibility, and adaptiveness to change and surprise are analyzed through an historical institutionalism approach. EYNF policies and practices have shifted from an early custodial approach that focused mostly on protection and prevention to a top-down, technical approach that eventually gave way to an ecosystem approach that has slowly incorporated more flexible, adaptive, and active learning elements. These shifts in EYNF management mostly have been reactive and incremental, with some rarer, rapid changes primarily in response to significant changes in national-level policies, but also to local level conditions and changes in them. Looking to the future, it seems the EYNF may be better positioned than ever before to address increasing uncertainty and surprise at multiple scales. However, it must be able to count on the resources necessary for implementing adaptive, collaborative forest management in a tropical setting and on the institutional and organizational space and flexibility to make swift adjustments or course corrections in response to system changes and surprises.
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