Evolving conceptions of the role of large dams in social-ecological resilience

Mia A. Hammersley, Christopher Scott, Randy Gimblett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Rivers and riparian ecosystems have historically provided a range of beneficial goods and services to human societies. However, floodplains have also posed risks to the humans that came to rely upon them. Although riparian areas are among the most resource-rich and biodiverse ecosystems, they are also some of the most disturbed by human activity. Today, social and economic needs for water diverted off-stream are often pitted against the flow of water needed to maintain crucial instream ecological functions. The construction of dams has been a widely implemented method to control rivers for human purposes, particularly in the western United States. However, there is a growing movement to decommission dams, as stakeholders begin to recognize the ultimate value of restoring ecosystem services, including cultural ecosystem services; indeed, their restoration may be necessary to ensure lasting systemic resilience. Broader questions of dam decommissioning in the United States are receiving increasing attention by scholars and practitioners alike. In this paper, we adapt and apply seminal concepts from the adaptive cycle framework and cultural ecosystem services, particularly for Native Nations, and thereby assess the unfolding case of decommissioning and restoration on the Elwha River in northwest Washington State. The empirical evidence indicates that dam removal coincided with scalar and temporal alignment of multiple adaptive cycles and contributed to both short and long-term resilience. Further, the Elwha case represents an extremely important precedent in the evolution of river management practices, in which stakeholder-based collaborative governance incorporated knowledge coproduction and regulatory maneuvering to successfully overcome obstacles inherent in both dam decommissioning and subsequent restoration. We conclude by reflecting on lessons of broader relevance beyond the specific case of the Elwha.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number40
JournalEcology and Society
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2018


  • Adaptive cycle
  • Cultural ecosystem services
  • Dam decommissioning
  • Knowledge coproduction
  • Native Nations
  • Riparian restoration
  • Salmon

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology


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