A bill passed by the U.S. Senate on Thursday would block a court order reducing the number of cruise ships allowed in Glacier Bay.
A federal appeals court issued an order in February cutting summer cruise ship voyages from 139 to 107 until a detailed study is completed on vessels' impacts on the national park and preserve about 60 miles west of Juneau. The February court order also reduced entries by charters and private boats.
An amendment by U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens to an Interior Department appropriations bill passed Thursday would keep the number of large ships in the bay at 139 in June, July and August each year until an environmental impact statement is completed. The bill now goes to a Senate and House conference committee that will craft a final version.
Conservationists who sued to get the study criticized the move by Stevens, an Alaska Republican.
"His amendment sacrifices park resources and endangered species in favor of an industry that has demonstrated repeated environmental insensitivity and disregard of U.S. pollution laws," said Kevin Collins of the National Park Conservation Association's Washington, D.C., office.
"Increasing cruise ship traffic without knowledge of the impacts on the park environment or the park's humpback whales and sea lion populations could cause irreparable harm," Collins said in a prepared statement.
Erik Elevjord, spokesman for Holland America Line, welcomed the Stevens amendment, but also said it is important to do the environmental impact statement.
Holland America's ships will visit Glacier Bay 107 times this year, out of 118 voyages in Southeast, said Elevjord from Seattle. The company markets itself as holding the largest number of permits for the peak season, at 62 entries.
"For us it's a pretty key aspect of our itineraries, and we love to go there," Elevjord said.
Stevens' amendment requires the National Park Service to use its current funds to do an environmental impact statement for its vessel management plan. It freezes the number of vessel entries at this year's level until the study is done. But it also lets the Interior secretary reduce the entries if the park's natural resources are at risk.
Stevens' "feeling is (the conservationists) need to prove what they're alleging with regard to impacts on the park," said Jen Siciliano, spokeswoman for the Senate Appropriations Committee, on which Stevens is the ranking Republican.
Glacier Bay Superintendent Tomie Lee praised the amendments.
"We are determined to do an environmental impact statement. It just keeps things at status quo," Lee said. "If we see an impairment occurring or research indicates a problem, we still have the authority to reduce those numbers immediately or even close the park to vessels immediately."
The Park Service has boosted the number of cruise ship entries in Glacier Bay by 30 percent since it completed a vessel management plan in 1996 following an environmental assessment, a less-detailed study than an environmental impact statement. The plan allows the agency to increase cruise ship entries by 72 percent over the pre-1996 level.
The Park Service also raised charter boat entries per summer from 271 to 312, and private boat entries from 407 to 468. Without Stevens' amendment, those mariners also would have had reduced access to the bay until the court-ordered environmental study was completed. Tour boats wouldn't have been affected by the court ruling because their allowable entries didn't increase in 1996.
In February, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it would order the U.S. District Court in Anchorage to issue an injunction to reduce the vessel entries to the pre-plan level.
But the appeals court hasn't passed that order to the lower court yet, and 139 cruise ships, capped at two a day, are expected to enter the bay this summer, park superintendent Lee said.
The vessel management plan also allows two cruise ships a day to enter the bay in the off-season without permits. There are usually about 60 to 80 cruise ship entries in May and September, park staff said.
Eric Fry can be reached at email@example.com.