Dispatches, April 1997
Kayakers bob quietly in Prince William Sound, listening to the creaking ice of a tidewater glacier, until the walls of the nearby Chugach Mountains begin to rumble. Responding to this cue, their guide explains to his clients how to broach the oncoming wake--not from a calving iceberg, but from the cruise ship approaching from behind. The Alaska experience they'd hoped for? Hardly. "The main draw for my customers," says kayak guide Jim Vermillion, "is not to see the waterborne equivalent of a busload of people."
Yet this episode is typical of the uneasy truce between small-scale and industrial-size tourism operations here. Despite occasional swampings of beached kayaks (and reports of retaliatory moonings), Prince William Sound--one of the continent's most majestic marine wildernesses--has so far managed to accommodate both. Renowned for its forested coast, soaring peaks, and fjords teeming with glaciers, the Sound has long been regarded as one of the premier sea-kayaking venues in North America. But the relative peace is now being shattered by a proposed road that could, opponents say, in its own way damage the Sound more irreversibly than did the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. And the resulting battle could have effects that reach far beyond its shores, as the state continues to grapple with tourism's age-old paradox: that the very thing that draws people to Alaska--unsullied wilderness--may be irreparably harmed by efforts to get more and more of them to come.
For now, tourists approaching the fjords from Anchorage, just 47 miles away, have no choice but to board a sporadic railroad shuttle that pulls into the tiny port of Whittier only six times a day, keeping the influx of visitors to a relative trickle, about 100,000 a year. This month, however, crews are slated to begin work on a small bridge on the Anchorage side of the mountains--part of a five-mile project, including the reconstruction of an existing railroad tunnel, that is expected to increase visitation to the Sound almost tenfold in its first year. The response from a coalition of Alaskan ecotourism companies and environmentalists: Not so fast. Last April they filed a lawsuit against the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Forest Service, hoping to permanently halt the road's construction. The federal court's decision is expected later this spring.
"Anybody who looks at tourism development worldwide, it's basically a resource-extractive industry," argues Steve Behnke, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness Recreation and Tourism Association, which represents some 300 businesses specializing in nature-based and adventure travel. "Places get overhyped, essentially destroyed, and then the big corporations move on to someplace else. The question is whether we're going to do the same or learn from it."
The suit, filed by environmental-law firm Trustees for Alaska and quickly joined by AWRTA, shocked the state's mainstream tourism industry. Within days, the Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau expelled AWRTA from its membership, calling the group "a detriment to sensible tourism development." The Alaska Visitors Association, representing such major players as Holland America Line-Westours, filed briefs for the defense, arguing that insufficient access is one of Alaskan tourism's most nagging problems.
Indeed, the highway has long been a dream of tour-company owners such as Brad Phillips, who runs day trips on a 420-passenger boat. Once it's in place, Phillips explains, the short bus ride will give visitors a chance to rest back at their Anchorage hotels before the next day's jaunt to Denali or Kotzebue. "This would add one more destination in Alaska," he says.
State highway builders say the 2.5-mile tunnel, to be shared by automobile traffic and the railroad, will become the longest vehicle tunnel in the nation. At the far end, Whittier itself is an unprepossessing destination. But the crowds will quickly fan out onto the Sound, on day cruises and fishing boats--nearly 1.4 million people annually within 15 years of the road's 1999 opening, according to the project's environmental impact study. Such pressure will force adventure tourism out of the Sound, road opponents say, and leave a diminished experience for everyone else. "In the fjords you can hear an approaching tour boat for two hours," says AWRTA board member Eleanor Huffines. "If it gets to the point where the recreational opportunities here are no different than they are near Seward and Homer, most guides will have to pull out."
Notably, the legal wrangling over the Sound's future is being closely watched in other parts of Alaska where the tourism industry is still mapping new frontiers. On the south side of Denali National Park, for instance, plans to catch spillover crowds with a new hotel and a second park visitor center packed public hearings last winter. And in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, interested parties are jockeying to see what kind of road will replace the 60-mile washboard that currently serves as its main artery. For now, however, Alaska's environmental community is focusing on the Whittier road--and is embittered by the fact that one-fourth of the project's $60 million cost is coming from money reimbursed to the state as part of the settlement with Exxon. "It's rubbing salt in a wound," says Nancy Lethcoe, who's led sailing and kayak trips in the Sound for 23 years.
In court, the road's opponents will argue that federal agencies should provide funding for hourly rail service rather than for rebuilding the tunnel. The state earlier rejected that option, saying it would require annual subsidies and move fewer people. At the least, critics say, federal and state officials should plan ahead for the impact, perhaps even setting aside some bays for nonmotorized travel.
But the larger tour companies dismiss zoning as "elitist," pointing out that they're not seeking special areas for their boats. Indeed, it seems clear that many big tour operators are having trouble understanding what the fuss is about: At least some of them seem to view paddlers not as competitors for use of a fragile natural resource, but as a
tourist attraction in themselves. Not long ago, Lethcoe recalls, her small group from Florida was startled by a ship's booming loudspeaker: "If you look to the left with your binoculars, you will see native kayakers paddling along the shore."