What Will the Alaska Oil Spill Mean to Visitors This Year?

Article excerpt

One year ago this month-on March 24, 1989-the supertanker Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound. Within days, I I million gallons of oil had poured from the ship's cargo tanks. It drifted southwest, spreading over 2,600 square miles of ocean and fouling beaches from the Kenai Peninsula to the Alaska Peninsula.

The disaster's long-term effects environmental, economic, and legal-remain uncertain. At our press time, it was not known whether this winter's rough seas had helped disperse the 7.5 million gallons of oil remaining after last summer's cleanup operation. A second summer's cleanup seems likely, but isn't definite. Impact on fish, marine mammals, and birds is still being studied: by last October, the US. Fish and Wildlife Service had counted 36,471 dead birds including 151 bald eagles) and 1,016 sea otters--but actual fatalities may be three to ten times greater.

"It will take 20 to 70 years for some bird populations to recover," says David Cline, Alaska-Hawaii regional vice president for the National Audubon Society. "Most nesting bald eagles in the spill's path failed to reproduce last summer. Some seabird populations were decimated. And there's still oil in the environment." Devastating as the spill was, what will be its impact on Alaska visitors this year? If you have tickets for a cruise ship sailing the Inside Passage, or want to see Columbia Glacier (at the north end of Prince William Sound) or fish for coho salmon, will the spill affect your vacation plans? Here the news is more certain-and almost entirely good.

A big spill-but in a bigger state "At the start of last summer," says Dana Brockway, director of the Alaska Division of Tourism, "we knew tourists worried that places like Ketchikan had been ruined by oil-even though Ketchikan is hundreds of miles from the spill site." The spill contaminated nearly 1,100 miles of shoreline-a distance almost as long as the California coast. But Alaska's shoreline totals more than 33,000 miles, if you include islands. Many popular destinations, such as the Inside Passage, went entirely unaffected.

Even within Prince William Sound, the spill's effects were generally not obvious to the casual visitor. The worst-hit beaches lay hours south of the popular tour route from Whittier past Columbia Glacier to Valdez. Says Brad Phillips, whose 26 Glaciers Tours is based in Whittier, "News accounts made it seem as if everything were covered with oil. But in fact, there are few effects in the areas most visitors go to see."

To the southwest, Kenai Fjords and Katmai national parks were fouled by the spill but the afflicted shorelines were not easily viewed. "Last year was crazy, awful, terrible," says Anne Castellina, superintendent of Kenai Fjords National Park. "But for the general visitor, the spill didn't have much of an impact." Though 20 miles of Kenai's 400-mile-long coast were hit, those areas are far from the routes of the tour boats that are the way most visitors see the park.

But if the spill did not invariably make travelers' lives difficult, cleanup operations often did. "We were reeling," says Gary Kranenburg of the Valdez Convention and Visitors Bureau. As headquarters for the cleanup, Valdez doubled in size. Tour groups were bumped from motel rooms. Motels and restaurants lost staff to higher-paying jobs scrubbing beaches. "I think we bent over backwards to do things right," says Mr. Kranenburg. "But Valdez had to face an awful lot of problems a small town couldn't cope with." South-central Alaska hopes to get back to normal in 1990. Below is an update on cruise ships, fishing, and popular destinations. (All area codes are 907.)

Cruises. Cunard Line, Holland America, Princess Cruises, Regency Cruises, Royal Viking Line, and World Explorer Cruises all sail through Prince William Sound. None altered operations last year, and none plan to this year. Ships keep well to the north and east of the spill site; passengers should notice few effects. …