Southeast Alaska national parks attracted record numbers of visitors in 2006, with the largest surge happening in the icy waters of Glacier Bay, the park nearest Juneau.
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Glacier Bay National Park attracted 413,382 visitors, up from 359,829 in 2005.
"We had the same number of cruise ship entries, but a number of larger ships (came in 2006)," said Vic Knox, the National Park Service's deputy regional director. There is no upper limit on ship size.
"From our standpoint, it's a largely good thing. More people are able to experience the park, with very little additional impact," he said.
For the first time in a decade, Glacier Bay is also allowing more cruise ship visits, which could make 2007 another record year. Fourteen additional visits will be allowed this summer, for a total of 153 ship visits during June, July and August.
Conservation groups have paid close attention to cruise ship traffic in Glacier Bay out of concern that the large vessels could disturb marine life, such as the harbor seal, Steller Sea lion and humpback whale.
Bill Brown, a member of Friends of Glacier Bay, said that restrictions were initially set after research found that certain levels of sound could disrupt the daily activities of the humpback whale.
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"We are not against cruise ships. There is no other real way to see the park except by the sea passage itself," Brown said. The conservation group had been pushing for one cruise ship per day, with a couple of ships a few times per week.
"That is sort of what the science indicated. There has always been pressure from the cruise ships and from their advocates to increase the number," he said. "Maybe this 14 additional is well within the bounds and represents a reasonable compromise. I don't know."
Park Superintendent Tomie Lee said there is also concern within the park about potential impacts on marine life. Management decisions depend largely on recommendations from a science advisory committee.
"One of the things that they were very articulate about was that simply the lack of knowledge does not mean there are no impacts," Lee said.
She said that as park managers, however, they have other concerns to weigh in.
"The research and science is only part of the issue, it is only part of the answer," Lee said.
"You look at what is best for our visitors. The vast majority do come to our park by cruise ship. Then we take all of that into consideration including political issues, and we come up with what we did," Lee said.
Lee said that 14 visits seemed practical and in line with previous increases, which have typically been about 25 percent.
She said the cruise ship companies did not request the increase.
"That is not to say they couldn't use more, but they were not requesting it. In fact, two of our prime-season companies have not used their entries for several seasons now," Lee said.
Crystal Cruises, Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and World Explorer Cruises are the companies who have contracts to sail to Glacier Bay during the 92-day summer or "prime," season.
Cruise ship companies have also played an important role in minimizing potential negative environmental affects, she said.
Cruise lines pay a "franchise" fee of $5 per person. Eighty percent of the money collected stays within the park. Twenty percent is spent on concession and service improvements and maintenance; the remaining 60 percent on research. Much of this work is done to determine the effects on marine life.
When the companies signed their 10-year contracts in 1997, Holland America led the way in voluntarily reducing waste and emissions, Lee said.
"The cruise industry stepped up. We actually had no way of making them do that," Lee said. "We believe that we will again see the cruise industry really stepping up."
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She said it is also important to understand that this does not mean more cruise ship traffic in Alaska, it means that 14 of the ships that are already in Alaska waters will be coming to Glacier Bay rather than other ports. This could mean less traffic for the other stops.
"With the increase in 1996 when we went up to a 139, there were at least a couple of the ports that did lose a large number," Lee said.
Sitka - home of the Sitka National Historic Park - has seen a flattening in cruise ship traffic. But Hugh Bevan, executive director of Sitka Economic Development Association, said he could not tell whether it was because more ships were being drawn to other Southeast national parks like Glacier Bay.
"Sitka is just enough out of the way that it doesn't quite fit in with their normal scheduling," he said.
Bevan attributed the lack of growth in part also to the absence of docks.
A rival stop might also be Hoonah, which is closer to Glacier Bay. Three years ago, Hoonah's Huna Totem Corp. renovated an old cannery to accommodate shops and foot traffic from cruise ships.
Sitka National Historic Park also experienced a surge of about 40,000 visitors in 2006 over the previous year, bringing the total to 331,393.
The third national park in the Southeast is the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park in Skagway. In 2006, more than 900,000 visitors were recorded there.
The state total has increased 5 percent from 2.36 million in 2005 to 2.47 million in 2006. Meanwhile, visitor growth across the nation remained stable, with about 273 million visits recorded - about the same as it was in 2005.
Brittany Retherford can be reached at email@example.com.