ANCHORAGE -- Thousands of cruise ship passengers who booked vacations to Glacier Bay National Park this summer may have to bypass the bay or reschedule their trips after a federal judge ordered an immediate rollback in the number of ships visiting the bay.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge James K. Singleton Friday could affect up to 32 of the 42 cruise ships still scheduled to visit the popular Southeast Alaska destination this season. Each ship carries 1,500 passengers or so.
"We know there's going to be some effect. We don't know how much of an effect there is going to be," National Park Service spokesman John Quinley said.
John Hansen, executive director of the NorthWest CruiseShip Association, said Friday that he wanted to know more about the judge's decision before commenting.
Glacier Bay National Park is a popular destination for Alaska cruise ships because of its majestic fjords and glaciers. About 350,000 cruise passengers visit the park each year, Quinley said, most touring the scenic waters for a half day before steaming on.
Friday's injunction stems from a 1997 lawsuit brought by the National Parks Conservation Association.
The Washington, D.C.-based group, which has an office in Anchorage, argued that the Park Service should have done a full-scale environmental review before boosting the number of cruise ships allowed into Glacier Bay.
Until 1996, the number of cruise ships was limited to 107 during the peak months of June, July and August. In 1997, park managers boosted the limit to 139 ships. The Park Service based that decision on an environmental assessment, not a more rigorous environmental impact statement.
In February of this year, a federal appeals court ruled that the 1997 decision violated the law and ordered the Park Service to lower the number of ships to 107 until it completed the impact statement. The court left it to Singleton to decide when the reduction should be made.
Singleton's ruling Friday takes effect immediately, but it was not clear exactly how many ships would be banned from the bay this year, Quinley said. It could be as low as 10 or as high as 32, he said.
Chip Dennerlein, who heads the parks conservation association in Alaska, said he sympathized with those who have already booked trips, but said the group had waited years for the limits to be cut back.
"At what point do you say one more year, one more year?" he asked.
The group says increased big-vessel traffic in the bay heightens the risk of spills and air pollution, and of possible collisions and other harm to endangered humpback whales. A whale was recently found dead from head injuries near the entrance to the park. The Park Service suspects a ship ran into it.
Quinley said the agency had asked the judge to let all the ships enter the bay this year.
"On balance, we would sort of weigh in on the side of park visitors who had trips planned," he said.
Dennerlein said lawyers for his organization tried unsuccessfully to reach a settlement with the cruise ship industry that would protect the whales while maintaining cruise ship traffic at current levels.
"Instead, they went to Congress to lock in the numbers," he said.
Dennerlein was referring to a rider to the Interior Department appropriations bill, written by Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, that would have kept ship levels at the current 139 per season while the Park Service completed an environmental study on how the big vessels affect Glacier Bay.
The rider essentially would have overridden the appeals court decision back in February that ordered the Park Service to roll back ship entries to 107. The Senate passed the bill last month, but the legislation has not taken effect.
Singleton announced from the bench Friday that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision ordering the rollback was "crystal clear," and the number of ships must be reduced, Dennerlein said.