The National Park Service has opted to reduce the number of cruise ship tours into Glacier Bay National Park this month by nine instead of the 32 that would have been the most drastic scenario posed by a recent court ruling.
The new plan released Tuesday should bring the Park Service into compliance with a federal judge's decision last week that ordered an immediate reduction of ships in the park, said agency spokesman John Quinley. He said attorneys probably will file the plan in federal court this week.
The plan will go into effect immediately, Quinley said, noting the agency does not need explicit approval from the court to enact the plan. However, the judge could order revisions, he said.
Conservationists and cruise line officials called the plan fair.
"It could have been worse," said Tom Dow of Princess Cruises. "The Park Service tried to minimize the disruption and the impact on cruise passengers."
"I think that is appropriate," said Chip Dennerlein of the National Parks Conservation Association, a Washington, D.C.-based group that initiated the court battle. "I think it implements the intent and the letter of the law of the court ruling."
In February a federal appeals court ruled the Park Service violated the law by increasing cruise ship entries into Glacier Bay from 107 to 139 during June, July and August each year.
The agency should have done a full-blown environmental impact statement before increasing the limit, not the less rigorous environmental assessment it used in its 1997 decision, according to the court.
The three-judge panel ordered the Park Service to return the number of entries to 107 ships and sent its ruling to U.S. District Judge James K. Singleton of Anchorage, who on Friday made the rollback effective immediately.
However, the Park Service was unsure whether Singleton intended to apply the entire 32-ship reduction in August or to allow a smaller reduction this year because the peak season is winding down. Under those scenarios, the reduction ranged from nine to 32 ships.
"If we had taken 32 entries out, the cruise season would essentially be done today," said Quinley of the Park Service. "We felt it was more reasonable to reduce the level on a pro-rated basis than to take a whole summer's worth of reductions out of three-and-a-half weeks."
The plan affects four cruise lines with ships scheduled to enter Glacier Bay in August. Holland America will divert five of 17 cruises, Princess Cruises two of seven, Norwegian Cruise Lines one of six, and World Explorer will divert one of two cruises.
At least two cruise lines are looking to Hubbard Glacier near Yakutat as an alternative to Glacier Bay.
"It is an acceptable alternative to Glacier Bay and it's the customary alternative for cruise lines that don't have permits to enter Glacier Bay on certain voyages," said Dow, who figured the reduction would affect about 4,000 of his company's passengers.
"There is a significant glacier experience by going into the Hubbard area, but it doesn't have the name recognition of Glacier Bay," said Holland America's Al Parrish, who estimated the change would affect roughly 6,500 of its passengers.
The ruling also applies to charter boats and private vessels in the park, but Quinley said it probably won't have much effect on small operators because demand does not exceed the reduced number of permits available.
The agency has not yet decided how the reduction will apply to cruise lines next year, and the industry hopes to find relief from Congress by then.
A rider attached to an appropriations bill would keep the cruise ship limit of entries at 139 for the three peak months each year until an environmental impact statement is done, overruling the appeals court.
The rider was approved by the Senate and is awaiting action in a House-Senate conference committee, Dow said.
"The Senate amendment that is pending before the conference committee in the U.S. Congress will be acted on, we think, soon after the Congress returns from the August recess," Dow said.
Dennerlein, the conservationist, said his group will vigorously oppose the rider.
"I think it is time to take the stewardship of the marine environment in Southeast and Glacier Bay seriously, and I would hope the industry does not once again try to run to Congress to exempt themselves from every plan, regulation and court decision," he said.
Kathy Dye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.