As an Alaskan who makes his living transporting visitors through Prince William Sound, I was dismayed last fall by the passage of an initiative placing unnecessary and unwieldy new provisions on the cruise ship industry, an industry that is important to many Alaskans.
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As the Legislature is contemplating changes that would eliminate some of the duplicative and costly provisions of the initiative, I'd like to give a firsthand prospective from someone whose livelihood depends on the image of Alaska as clean and well-protected.
About six years ago, the state worked with the industry and others to develop significant environmental standards that were passed into law. These changes have meant cleaner water for the coastal communities where cruise ships operate.
The standards were so significant that other states, such as Washington and Hawaii, have looked to Alaska as a model for environmental change.
Last August, the ballot initiative created a whole new class of state employees known as ocean rangers. Their job? To ride aboard cruise ships and report the same information the industry is already legally required to report.
To give this issue some perspective, the author of the ballot initiative - or the so-called cruise ship head tax - told a legislative oversight hearing in February that Alaska "led the world" in addressing cruise ship regulation. Reports provided by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation show the legal changes implemented at the behest of the industry under the administration of former Gov. Tony Knowles are working; Alaska's waters are being protected by the existing statutes.
It's a waste of state funds to add an entire new bureaucracy that will result in no net environmental gain.
It also seems redundant to create a new set of state employees whose job will be to ride on cruise ships, performing the same monitoring tasks already mandated of the cruise companies.
Furthermore, in his testimony before the Legislature, the author of the ballot initiative admitted that the work force for the ocean ranger program is likely not available in Alaska and will potentially need to come from Outside. The certified marine engineers required to participate as ocean rangers simply aren't available in Alaska as most already have full-time jobs on the Alaska Marine Highway System or are already employed here seasonally and live elsewhere.
The cruise ship ballot initiative contained sections addressing everything from establishing the ocean ranger program, to disclosure of when local products are sold on board, to a gaming tax. This initiative was cumbersome and confusing. It is no wonder our Legislature is taking steps to separate the wheat from the chaff and trying to put forward a workable system.
Right now, a group of legislators is attempting to clearly define the ocean ranger program so it has value, or propose changes that will eliminate the redundancy. They are being criticized for this effort.
As a member of the visitor industry who is directly affected by this ballot initiative, I would urge all Alaskans to support House Bill 164 and substantive changes to the ocean ranger program.
If this program resulted in an environmental gain for Alaska's waters, I would likely recommend it. But it does not. The initiative and the ocean ranger program simply create expensive redundancy and more bureaucracy.
Let your legislator know you support House Bill 164.
Stan Stephens is the owner and operator of Stan Stephens Cruises. He is a Valdez resident.