Latest On The Conservation Gateway

A well-managed and operational Conservation Gateway is in our future! Marketing, Conservation, and Science have partnered on a plan to rebuild the Gateway into the organization’s enterprise content management system (AEM), with a planned launch of a minimal viable product in late 2024. If you’re interested in learning more about the project, reach out to for more info!

Welcome to Conservation Gateway

The Gateway is for the conservation practitioner, scientist and decision-maker. Here we share the best and most up-to-date information we use to inform our work at The Nature Conservancy.

Nice Guys Be Dammed: Why We Need to Get Pushier on Dams

Richter, Brian 3/31/2011

The Nature Conservancy prides itself on being “non-confrontational” — and for good reasons. Behaving in a non-confrontational manner enables us to work productively with a broad spectrum of agencies, companies and governments to influence the way they use and manage natural resources. Many of our staff fervently believe that we get more conservation accomplished by holding true to our non-confrontational values.

However, that belief — that we can achieve more conservation by being “nice guys” rather than by being activists — has never been rigorously and objectively examined. It’s insightful in this sense to compare the Conservancy’s effectiveness in preventing or reducing the environmental and social impacts of dams with what International Rivers, a well-known activist dam-fighting organization, has accomplished.

Let me begin by stating my professional opinion that nothing has been more devastating to river ecosystems and species at the global scale than dam-building. Dams have altered more than onehalf of all large rivers in the world, pushing aquatic species into extinction and compromising the livelihoods of more than 500 million people through changes in fisheries and floodplain farming and grazing. Hence, the Conservancy’s effectiveness in thwarting dam impacts is highly relevant to measuring our organizational contribution to freshwater conservation and human health.

So let’s tally our organization’s scores. Credit for influencing dam impacts can be earned in three ways: (1) removing dams; (2) mitigating dam impacts, such as by instating environmental flow releases or building fish ladders; or (3) stopping dams from being built.

The Conservancy has helped remove a handful of dams, and we deserve considerable credit for our role in the forthcoming removal of two dams on the Penobscot River in Maine. That project alone will increase fish access to river habitats by more than 2,000 kilometers. We are recognized as global leaders in implementing “e-flow” releases, such as through the Sustainable Rivers Project with the Army Corps of Engineers. We haven’t stopped any dams from being built, although we’re putting up a strong fight against one on the Yangtze in China at the moment. All in all, I’d estimate that our dams work has benefitted somewhere around 3,000 kilometers of river habitat, virtually of it in the United States.

The tally for International Rivers, however, is very hard to beat. The organization can take legitimate credit for organizing protests that stopped many proposed dams, protecting tens of thousands of kilometers of rivers. In fact, their advocacy had a major influence on World Bank investments in dams, slowing those investments from $1 billion per year to near zero by the late 1990s. And by heightening awareness of the environmental impacts of dams, IR has made it a lot easier for the Conservancy to pursue our mitigating dam strategies — because many dam developers and funders such as the World Bank have now adopted policies that make our work easier.

Lest you start thinking that I’m pushing for the Conservancy to get into extreme anti-dam advocacy, I assure you I’m not. Organizations like IR are very good at confrontation and don’t need help from middle-of-the-road groups like TNC. However, our organization needs to come to grips with the reality that we possess a unique capability (and I would suggest a moral imperative) to apply our breakthrough solutions to one of the world’s most pressing challenges, at a much greater scale. The Conservancy is seriously under-delivering on its potential; we are actively engaging in only two places outside the United States presently (the Yangtze and Mexico). Yet no other organization has more experience in designing, testing and demonstrating real-world solutions to dam issues.

As touched upon in other essays in this issue of science chronicles, there are multiple ways in which the Conservancy could be engaging more broadly on dam issues. Our Hydropower by Design approach, which in many ways mirrors the mitigation hierarchy of Development by Design, encapsulates some promising opportunities. We should be engaging with national governments, particularly in rapidly-developing regions, to intervene in dam planning to ensure that any new dams are built in the places least damaging to people and nature. The Conservancy, through its own capacities as well as partnerships with social issue NGOs, is uniquely capable of helping with such planning. We should also be advising the design and operations of both existing and planned dams, so that their impacts are mitigated to the extent possible, or appropriately compensated. Pro forma with the Conservancy’s culture, decisions about where to engage have been left to the field programs. Our project engagement outside the United States has been severely limited to date, owing to multiple reasons, including risk aversion, undervaluing aquatic biodiversity relative to terrestrial nature and lack of resources and local Conservancy capacity.

We must overcome these limitations and begin making our overdue contribution to resolving or lessening global dam problems. We have no shortage of powerful ideas and case studies for improving dam development and operations; our Global Freshwater Team and many field staff have published many papers and books on this issue. However, too many in the dam industry or investment banks remain unaware of us and our capabilities.

I believe that we need to get a lot louder, with a balanced message that conveys both the damage done and the promise of doing better. (The latter will differentiate us from International Rivers). We will not attract the resources to expand our dams work unless we bring much more attention to ourselves:

  • We should actively pursue placement of opeds in major newspapers; every time a major dam controversy somewhere in the world hits the headlines, we should pounce on the opportunity to offer our thoughts in an op-ed. Through carefully worded editorials, the world will begin to appreciate our balanced reasoning, expertise and proven solutions.
  • We should encourage and enable more scholarly research and documentation of both the problems and the solutions, such as the paper we published last year documenting the fact that more than 500 million people have been impacted by dams, mostly unnecessarily.
  • We should actively seek out political figures and movie stars willing to take the public stage with us to bring attention to these issues. I challenge everyone reading this to think critically about what else we need to do to bring our solutions to scale. Dam threats are intensifying greatly; we must get to scale quickly.


By Brian Richter, Co-Manager, Global Freshwater Team, The Nature Conservancy