Within the varied contexts of environmental policy, conservation of imperilled species populations, and restoration of damaged habitats, an emphasis on idealized optimal conditions has led to increasingly specific targets for management. Overly-precise conservation targets can reduce habitat variability at multiple scales, with unintended consequences for future ecological resilience. We describe this dilemma in the context of endangered species management, stream restoration, and climate-change adaptation. Inappropriate application of conservation targets can be expensive, with marginal conservation benefit. Reduced habitat variability can limit options for managers trying to balance competing objectives with limited resources. Conservation policies should embrace habitat variability, expand decision-space appropriately, and support adaptation to local circumstances to increase ecological resilience in a rapidly changing world.