The Alaska Marine Highway System is planning to send the state ferry Malaspina on two cruise-style excursions into Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve this spring.
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Gov. Frank Murkowski said the day-excursions would allow Alaskans to experience what tens of thousands of cruise ship passengers enjoy every summer.
"We think it marks a significant advance in our intention to have access for Alaskans into Glacier Bay," he said at a wide-ranging press conference on Wednesday.
The trips are in addition to limited passenger ferry service to park headquarters in Bartlett Cove - a service that began last summer.
Haines Republican Bill Thomas, whose House district includes the park and surrounding communities, said the ferry service is useful for area residents and visitors but he questioned the need for the longer bay excursions.
"I think when they have the big problem with fuel costs right now it's kind of out of the way," he said.
State transportation officials did not provide an estimate of the cost. The ferry system is requesting almost $15 million this year to supplement its current budget, much of that to cover high fuel costs.
The Glacier Bay excursions are tentatively set for April 26 and April 28. The Malaspina would be allowed in under the same regulations that govern cruise ship traffic in the bay.
Park officials are still completing a legal review of the permit but do not anticipate any problems.
The governor, who has long wrestled with the federal government over control of the park's waters, said he is disappointed the trips could not happen during the prime summer months, but no slots were open.
The park limits the number of large ships allowed, citing environmental and wildlife concerns.
The numbers could get a boost in 2007, however. The park has proposed raising the current limit during the busy summer months from 139 to 153 large ships.
Park Service spokesman John Quinley said the public comment period on the proposed change closed recently. He said the bulk of about a 1,000 comments were from individuals opposing any increase. He said the state, travel organizations and the Glacier Bay Science Advisory Board all favored increasing the number though by varying amounts.
Glacier Bay Superintendent Tomie Lee is expected to announce a decision in the next few weeks.
Meanwhile ferry service to Bartlett Cove is governed under separate regulations that allow one daily passenger ferry into the park.
About 650 passengers bought a ferry ticket to Glacier Bay in eight trips made by the LeConte last summer.
The state again will add the stop as another leg on the LeConte's regular trip to Angoon, Hoonah and other northern communities in Southeast.
Murkowski said eight trips are planned between May and August but a schedule has not been published yet.
Last summer, the LeConte arrived on Wednesdays - the only day a commercial ferry, operated by Allen Marine, did not come to the park.
Allen Marine did not seek to renew its permit this year. Company officials said the park runs were not cost effective, adding that competition from the state ferry was not a factor.
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