Environmental Management

, Volume 59, Issue 6, pp 982–994 | Cite as

The Social, Historical, and Institutional Contingencies of Dam Removal

  • F. J. Magilligan
  • C. S. Sneddon
  • C. A. Fox


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.


Dam removal River restoration Environmental conflict Environmental politics 



This research was funded in part by the U.S. National Science Foundation (BCS-1263519) and from a Seed Grant from the Dartmouth College Rockefeller Center for Public Policy. We would like to thank the numerous individuals who agreed to be interviewed by us, and also the array of students who helped with GIS, data entry, and interview transcriptions, especially Anna Wearn, Chloe Gettinger, Brendan Schuetze, and Evan Dethier. Jonathan Chipman provided necessary cartographic and GIS assistance. We would also like to thank the input from two anonymous reviewers that helped the overall clarity.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no competing interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of GeographyDartmouth CollegeHanoverUSA
  2. 2.Department of Geography and Environmental Studies ProgramDartmouth CollegeHanoverUSA

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