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Limits of Acceptable Change

January 5, 2019
Harold Goodwin
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There is a range of carrying capacity methodologies developed for transport, rangeland ecology and in tourism most extensively used in national parks. For avoiding or managing overtourism the most useful methodology is generally Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC).

The challenge for those developing and managing cultural heritage sites and protected areas is to plan for tourism without degrading the socio-cultural and physical environment on which it depends, whilst generating income to meet their objectives of the conservation and preservation of natural and cultural resources

It is important to remember that carrying capacity is not “a fixed value based on tourist presence” (Cooper et al, 2008:230). It is a dynamic, fluid concept, dependent upon and influenced by a multitude of factors. Cooper et al (2008:223-8) divide these into ‘alien’ factors relating to tourists themselves and how tolerant the locality is of them and their particular characteristics and activities; and ‘local’ factors as explained below in relation to natural and cultural sites.

Limits of Acceptable Change LAC
It is discussed here as a management strategy in protected areas - it works just as well for cultural heritage - the trick is to set the right limits.
The danger with this methodology is that at each revision of the management plan the limits are weakened and over time a ratchet effect occurs. This may not create major problems with visitor satisfaction and socio-cultural impacts as people's tolerance of crowding may increase over time but the physical and environmental impacts may be very significant.

The philosophy of the LAC is that change is an inevitable consequence of resource use, and that a framework is required to tackle resource management problems from the perspective of the extent to which change is acceptable. The Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC) model was developed for managing protected landscapes by determining what environmental impacts from “desirable” social activities are acceptable, and then determining management actions to ensure that the activities remain constrained with in the LAC. (This shifts the focus from the ‘level of use and impact’ idea to the more proactive approach of identifying desirable conditions for visitor activity to occur in the first place, followed by management actions needed to protect or achieve the conditions (Clarke and Stankey 1979; Stankey et al. 1985).

Unlike the carrying capacity and ROS frameworks, the LAC process emphasises the use of a series of different but integrated planning processes to determine quantitative indicators that can assist in the formulation of an overall management plan. It concentrates on establishing measurable limits to human-induced changes in the natural and social settings of protected landscapes, and on identifying appropriate management strategies (Ceballos-Lascurain, 1996). It offers a far more modern approach to planning in protected areas as it allows for public participation (as we saw above, a pre-requisite of sustainable tourism)

There are four major components of the LAC process:

• the specification of acceptable and achievable social and resource conditions
• an understanding of the relationship between existing conditions and those judged acceptable
• identification of management actions which will assist in achieving these conditions
• a monitoring and evaluation of effectiveness programme (Stankey et. al., 1985)

Furthermore, there are nine steps devised to facilitate the LAC process. They are:

  • Identify issues and concerns.  The purpose of this step is to identify features of particular concern to be maintained or achieved; identify specific locations of concern; provide a basis for establishing management objectives; guide allocation of the protected landscape to different opportunity classes
  • Develop and describe opportunity classes.  The purpose of this step is to devise a range of different opportunity classes, where an opportunity class provides “…a qualitative description of the kinds of resource and social conditions acceptable for that class and the type of management activity considered appropriate” (Stankey et. al., 1985, p.6).  This will facilitate the provision and maintenance of inter and intra area diversity within the protected landscape.
  • Select indicators for resource and social conditions.  This step identifies specific variables which require inventorying and monitoring (for example, vegetation damage, soil erosion, amount of infrastructure, crowding) and to provide the basis for identifying what management actions are required where.
  • Inventory existing resource and social conditions.  During this step data is collected on the range of resources and social conditions that will help establish meaningful standards, and help decisions on allocation to different opportunity classes.
  • Develop standards required for each opportunity class.  This step involves the specification of standards that describe acceptable and appropriate conditions for each defined opportunity class.
  • Identify alternative opportunity classes.   This step involved examining options to help define what conditions are acceptable in terms of the resource and social conditions.
  • Identify management actions for each alternative.  During this step the range of management strategies that would be required for each alternative opportunity class are examined, which will help determine which are viable.
  • Evaluate alternatives and select preferred alternative.  This step involves finalising opportunity class allocations and the preferred management programme.
  • Implement actions and monitor conditions.  During this step, the management programme is implemented to achieve the objectives set in step eight (above).  Monitoring ensures periodic, systematic feedback on how the management action is working.  It also identifies trends or variances that may require the introduction of new actions.

Stankey et. al., 1985

Clearly the LAC process is far more flexible for planning in protected landscapes as it identifies a range of activities that can be carried out and that these activities require different types of resources (natural, physical, cultural) and social conditions if the visitor is to obtain a satisfying experience.  The constant monitoring of conditions also allows for changes in trends, which suggests that the model is dynamic.

Prosser (1986) suggests the benefits of the LAC model include:

• emphasis on explicit, measurable objectives;
• promotion of a diversity of visitor experiences;
• reliance on quantitative field-based standards;
• flexibility and responsiveness to local situations;
• opportunity for public involvement;
• minimisation of regulatory approaches; and
• a framework for managing conditions.

Ceballos-Lascuráin, Héctor (2002) Tourism, ecotourism and protected areas IUCN Section 9. Assessment, monitoring and management techniques
Cooper, C., Fletcher, J., Fyall, A., Gilbert, D. & Wanhill, S. (2008) Tourism: Principles and Practice. Prentice Hall. Read pages 221-232
Pedersen A (2002) Managing Tourism at World Heritage Sites a Practical Manual for World Heritage Site Managers UNESCO World Heritage Centre

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