Dr. Barry Gold provides his view of the difference between active and passive adaptive management:
Many practitioners and authors talk of adaptive management as ranging along a spectrum from active to passive. In my view, what separates the two is the degree to which the management action has been designed to test a specific hypothesis. Just as a good experiment requires a clearly formulated hypothesis to be tested, experimental design, and data collection or a monitoring system, an active adaptive management program requires the same elements,
Active adaptive management refers to an approach where the management action is conducted in the context of an explicit hypothesis and associated monitoring protocol. From the outset, one is testing whether or not the proposed management action will produce a given result. The monitoring framework that accompanies the management action/ experiment is designed to measure the right variables that will help gain information on whether the management action/experiment is having the hoped for effect and why or why not. The data and learning that results is used to make a change in the management action if warranted. A conceptual model has probably been developed as part of this process. There is intentionality, and many of the same principles that are used in developing a sound experimental design have been used in articulating the management action.
On the other end of the spectrum is passive adaptive management, where you don’t get to design the management action but where you still try to apply principles of experimental design to learn from the management actions that are being implemented. With passive adaptive management, one doesn’t get to test the system’s response to an action or set of actions that are outside the bounds of current management practice. The practitioner tries to use the current management regime as the adaptive management experiment even though it probably has not been designed to test a given hypothesis about how the system works and how it will respond to a management action. One will still need to develop a monitoring program to try to understand whether or not the given management action is achieving the desired result and why or why not. The real question is: what type of learning is accomplished without an explicit hypothesis in mind for the management action and whether or not the management action is strong enough – perturbs the system far enough away from its current state – to provide meaningful learning?