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Step 3: Identify the level of acceptable change

How much can the system (or planned future system) change before it reaches an undesirable state?

At what point do the key structural or functional aspects identified in Step 1 become threatened and require action, either to avoid the threshold being reached or to bring the system back to a desirable state?  These are often challenging questions and the answers are highly dependent on the system of interest and the local context (see the table below). There may be several acceptable alternative states (e.g. woodland of varying age or species structure), but maintenance of the system (i.e. always a form of woodland) may be the goal. Natural systems may not rapidly return to the pre-disturbance state, requiring judgements regarding whether recovery is taking place or if the path is one of degradation, in which case interventions may be required. An acceptable length of time for recovery to the pre-disturbance state should be selected.

Guiding questions and examples for Step 3

Guiding questions applicable to all settings

Conservation organisation woodland

Is the level of acceptable change defined by structure? For example, mortality of certain species or habitat loss.


  • Increase in native broadleaved species
  • Increase in ground flora


  • Increase in invasive species
  • Loss of target indicator species

Is the level of acceptable change defined by function? For example, reduced carbon sequestration or income.


  • Increase in natural regeneration
  • Increase in structural diversity and mosaics


  • Decline in visitor numbers or public support

Are the boundaries fuzzy or precise?

Species change and visitor numbers can be measured for a precise boundary

Desired level of natural regeneration is a fuzzy boundary

Are thresholds involved?

Multiple thresholds, including the required compliment of indicator species to achieve the desired habitat

Are there potential trade-offs or different stakeholder priorities?

Increase in visitors (desirable for public engagement) could result in site damage and wildlife disturbance

Hints and tips for Step 3

  • This step will reinforce/test the clarity of the initial system definition (Step 1), which may need to be adjusted to make progress.
  • It is often challenging or undesirable to define precise boundaries to acceptable change (see box below). In these cases the boundaries are deemed ‘fuzzy’.
  • It can be helpful to think about both positive and negative changes, and thereafter the thresholds or boundaries between them. This process may also be useful when planning a managed transformation to a new system.
  • It may also be helpful to describe signs of degradation, that is unwanted change towards an undesired system (e.g. reduced regeneration of desired tree species, greater unpredictability in yields, soil erosion at specific sites).

Scale and position of acceptability

Change in a system may be more or less acceptable at different levels and scales in different organisations. The group might want to break into smaller groups to consider how a change could affect different stakeholders. For example, if a native tree species is affected by disease, what other species might this have an impact on? People and organisations will be invested with different interests, so take a moment to identify the groups you might not usually consider.

Here are some possible questions to think about:

  • Is the change more acceptable at a county or a neighbourhood scale?
  • Is the change positive or negative?
  • Where are the conflicts and agreements between the interested groups?
Next: go to Step 4
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