The Great Salmon War

Conservation group demonstrates at White House to save salmon and shake river
The Snake is a majestic river of the Pacific Northwest once traveled by Lewis and Clark. And for the second year, an environmental group calls it the nation's most endangered river with a dwindling salmon population.

Protecting the fish from extinction calls for a radical solution, as CBS News Correspondent Jerry Bowen reports.

Along the Snake River these days from Idaho into Washington state, people are taking sides in the great salmon war.

"I don't want to say it's a war, but I, gee whiz, you know?" says Dan Wolf.

A high stakes battle has erupted over the future of four dams that generate electricity and make the river navigable for barges taking grain and products to market.

"We've sent a man to the moon, and we've done all kind of wonderful things. Why can't they save the fish a different way than to destroy people's lives?" asks Shirley Reves.

Lives would be changed by a plan to breach earthen sections of the dam to let the river - and endangered salmon - run freely. Years of barging the fish down river to avoid dangerous turbines and million-dollar fish ladders to help them return home haven't worked well. The problem is that a free-running river might be too low for the barges and for power plants to run, too.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber is one of few politicians to side with the dam busters. But he wants compensation for any lost jobs and businesses.

"What I did is take the lid off the can of worms and say, 'OK, let's look inside," Kitzhaber says.

"I'm very prepared to support a dam-breaching strategy in conjunction with other measures," he adds.

The Snake River dams are the biggest targets in a campaign to remove unneeded or environmentally harmful dams from America's rivers. The Matilija Dam in California is also on that list. But it would cost $80 million to dismantle it just so fish can migrate freely upriver again.

Proponents argue it will cost much more if the dams remain, especially the Snake River dams.

"I think if the salmon runs aren't healthy, the watersheds aren't healthy," Kitzhaber says. "And if the watersheds aren't healthy, our ecosystem isn't healthy. And if that's true, we're mortgaging this wonderful precious gift we've been given here in the Northwest to future generations."

Environmentalists were lobbying hard in Washington Thursday but a final proposal by the Army Corps of Engineers isn't likely until after the elections.

At the same time, the clock is running for the fish and dams alike. These are massive structures the salmon can't live with, and some people claim they can't live without them.