The concept of adaptive management has, for many ecologists, become a foundation of effective environmental management for initiatives characterized by high levels of ecological uncertainty. Yet problems associated with its application are legendary, and many of the initiatives promoted as examples of adaptive management appear to lack essential characteristics of the approach. In this paper we propose explicit criteria for helping managers and decision makers to determine the appropriateness of either passive or active adaptive-management strategies as a response to ecological uncertainty in environmental management. Four categories of criteria—dealing with spatial and temporal scale, dimensions of uncertainty, the evaluation of costs and benefits, and institutional and stakeholder support— are defined and applied using hypothetical yet realistic case-study scenarios that illustrate a range of environmental management problems. We conclude that many of the issues facing adaptive management may have less to do with the approach itself than with the indiscriminate choice of contexts within which it is now applied.