Alaska's coastal waters constitute a particularly fragile environment. They're rich in marine life and spills and discharges from ocean-going vessels can quickly impact that sea life. Too, there's the question of emissions from the large ships.
At Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, cruise ships that can carry thousands of passengers are a valued component of the tourism industry. At the same time, park officials realize these ships can quickly overwhelm the environment. Back in 2003 park Superintendent Tomie Lee told the Juneau Empire that how many ships are allowed into Glacier Bay would depend on environmental considerations.
"We feel comfortable with what we've been allowing the past seven years, and still feel we ought to be extremely cautious about making changes, especially if the changes are to increase motorized usage in the bay," she told the newspaper.
When Lee made those comments, the National Park Service limited to 139 the number of cruise ship visits that could be made to the park during the summer months. Now, three years later, Lee apparently feels comfortable enough with the cruise ship industry to increase by 10 percent the number of ships allowed into the park's waters, beginning in 2007.
Some groups think that's a mistake.
In years past the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has cited
cruise ships that entered Glacier Bay for exceeding state and federal
emissions limits. To be fair, the cruise ship industry does recognize
its responsibility to the environment and has worked to improve its reputation and track record.
But the National Parks Conservation Association thinks Supt. Lee is making a mistake by agreeing to let 14 more cruise ships enter the park's waters beginning with the 2007 summer season. In arguing against her proposal, which is open for public comment until February 21, the advocacy group notes that a science advisory board recommended last fall to the superintendent that there's a need for "at least two more years" of studies to determine the impact cruise ships have on Glacier Bay.
Specifically, the board said that "an increase in seasonal use days for cruise ships in Glacier Bay could potentially affect aspects of the park's physical, marine biological, and sociocultural environments...insufficient scientific information exists to definitely conclude the nature, magnitude or significance of effects."
About the same time Alaska's governor, Frank Murkowski, complained that the Park Service was too slow in increasing the number of cruise ships into the park.
'It is time for Alaskans to have a voice in this process. Imagine the reaction from Californians or Montanans if the Park Service refused to allow their residents access into Yosemite or Yellowstone," he said in October.
"... This issue is not over. I will express my concern to the Interior secretary when we meet next month," added Murkowski. "And I will work with the congressional delegation to find some way for Alaskans to have an input on this important issue."
NPCA, however, believes park officials should wait for additional scientific research before moving to increase the number of cruise ships allowed into Glacier Bay.
"If the science shows that an increase in cruise ship traffic can safely occur, then the number will go up and more people will get to enjoy the park aboard a ship," the group says. "If the Park Service is jumping the gun, far more is at risk than happy park visitors."