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The Social, Historical, and Institutional Contingencies of Dam Removal
- Magilligan, F. J., Sneddon, C. S., Fox, C. A.
- Environmental management 2017 v.59 no.6 pp. 982-994
- case studies, ecological restoration, landscapes, managers, politics, rivers, stakeholders, watersheds, New England region, United States
- Environmental managers in the United States and elsewhere are increasingly perceiving dam removal as a critical tool for river restoration and enhancing watershed resilience. In New England, over 125 dams have been dismantled for ecological and economic rationales. A surprising number of these removals, including many that are ongoing, have generated heated conflicts between restoration proponents and local communities who value their dammed landscapes. Using a comparative case study approach, we examine the environmental conflict around efforts to remove six dams in New England. Each of these removal efforts followed quite different paths and resultant outcomes: successful removal, stalled removal, and failure despite seemingly favorable institutional conditions. Lengthy conflicts often transpired in instances where removals occurred, but these were successfully arbitrated by paying attention to local historical–geographical conditions conducive to removal and by brokering effective compromises between dam owners and the various local actors and stakeholders involved in the removal process. Yet our results across all cases suggest that these are necessary, but not sufficient conditions for restoration through dam removal since a similar set of conditions typified cases where removals are continuously stalled or completely halted. Scholars examining the intersection between ecological restoration and environmental politics should remain vigilant in seeking patterns and generalities across cases of environmental conflict in order to promote important biophysical goals, but must also remain open to the ways in which those goals are thwarted and shaped by conflicts that are deeply contingent on historical–geographical conditions and broader institutional networks of power and influence.