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House sticks with ocean ranger program

Sponsors of last year's cruise ship initiative pleased with decision

Posted: Wednesday, May 09, 2007

House lawmakers Tuesday rejected a plan that would have altered the job requirements for ocean rangers on board cruise ships to monitor pollution controls.

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The rangers must be qualified marine engineers, which is in line with the environmental program that voters passed as part of the cruise ship tax initiative in August 2006.

Rep. Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan, proposed changes to the program, however, that would have permitted rangers to be wastewater treatment operators. The version that died on the floor also would have allowed the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation to decide when rangers would be aboard ships.

Sponsors of last year's initiative, such as Gershon Cohen, were pleased with the House decision.

"The people across the state are getting sick and tired of multi-national, billion-dollar corporations telling us how we are going to live (and) taking our resources without fair payment," Cohen said.

The program as described in the voter initiative is paid for with $4 of a $50 head tax on cruise ship passengers. That is expected to raise about $4 million this season.

But in order for the agency to have the money to spend, the Legislature must appropriate it.

The House stripped funding for the ocean rangers from its version of the operating budget and would have paid for the program instead under the now-defunct bill.

The Senate, however, put $2.5 million for ocean rangers in its version, and now a House and Senate conference committee is working out the differences between the two.

Lynda Giguere, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Conservation, said that regardless of whether the bill passed, it has proceeded with implementing the "early season" ocean ranger program.

This means that while cruise ships might have arrived in Alaska without ocean rangers, they do have "professional environmental observers" on board.

The first observer boarded a Vision of the Seas Cruise at 5 p.m. Sunday and got off in Skagway 8 a.m. Monday.

"He worked through the night over three different shift changes," she said. The eight observers contracted for $128,520 by the environmental consulting group, Oasis Environmental, are not full-fledged ocean rangers because they lack a required certification by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Their mission, Giguere said, is to "to gain familiarity with the ships and the program."

Chip Thoma, a cruise ship industry watchdog, said that he and other initiative supporters understand the program will take some time to implement, but said there would be a "come to Jesus moment" for them if no progress is seen by July.

Unlike the ocean ranger measure, a bill aimed at protecting tour businesses from disclosing wholesale prices for tours did garner House approval Tuesday.

Sponsored by Rep. Lindsey Holmes, D-Anchorage, the bill that passed the House alters a requirement forcing cruise ship companies to tell passengers the commission prices they get for selling onshore tours.

Instead, passengers are to be told when they purchase tours on board if the commission exceeds 20 percent, what other options are available and where to go to learn about them.

"We are very happy, it was a good compromise," said Bob Jacobsen, president of the flightseeing tour company Wings of Alaska.

"My view quite frankly is that it doesn't go far enough," said Rep. Ralph Samuels, R-Anchorage.

Unforeseen consequences can result when government reaches too far into the marketplace, he said.

Still unresolved is a lawsuit filed by a handful of tour operators against the state filed May 4 in Sitka Superior Court. A temporary restraining order was issued Monday, with a hearing scheduled for Friday.

• Brittany Retherford can be reached at brittany.retherford@juneauempire.com.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.



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