ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The federal government violated the law by allowing an increase of cruise ships in Glacier Bay National Park of up to 72 percent without doing a full-scale environmental review, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
A three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the National Park Service to roll back the number of cruise ships plying Glacier Bay in Southeast Alaska every summer from 138 to 107. The court also told the agency to prepare an environmental impact statement to look at how increased vessel traffic will affect the bay's endangered humpback whales, other marine mammals, birds and air quality.
When park managers boosted the level of ship traffic into Glacier Bay in 1996 in response to a booming industry presence in the Panhandle, they based the decision on an environmental ''assessment,'' a less rigorous review than an environmental impact statement.
The assessment found that although increased ship traffic would expose Glacier Bay's wildlife to more noise and air pollution, and a higher risk of oil spills and boat collisions, there would be ''no significant impact'' on the environment.
''The Park Service's decision-makers made a 'clear error of judgment,''' wrote Judge Stephen Reinhardt. ''Glacier Bay Park is too precious an ecosystem for the Park Service to ignore significant risks to its diverse inhabitants and its fragile atmosphere.''
Although the Park Service increased the number of ships by 30 percent over 1996 levels, its vessel management plan for Glacier Bay allowed it to boost levels by up to 72 percent. The plan, adopted five years ago, was hotly debated at hearings in the Southeast and Anchorage. The public submitted some 450 comments, 85 percent of which favored a reduction in ship traffic in Glacier Bay, the judge wrote.
The ruling Friday stems from a lawsuit brought by the National Parks Conservation Association. The Washington, D.C.-based group, with an office in Anchorage, argued that the Park Service should not allow more cruise ships into Glacier Bay until it can prove that endangered whales and the rest of the environment would not be harmed.
Chip Dennerlein, the organization's Alaska representative, hailed the injunction.
''This is an important NEPA decision. It's important not only for Glacier Bay,'' said Dennerlein, referring to the National Environmental Policy Act, a law that requires federal agencies to conduct environmental impact statements when any action they take may cause significant harm to the environment.
''It's a tool that we have that matches the values of the park. It should have been used in this case and it wasn't,'' Dennerlein said.
The appeals court overturned a lower court decision.
The Park Service will comply with the court's order although the agency has yet to decide whether to appeal, said spokesman John Quinley. He noted that although the Park Service boosted the level of cruise ships, it also required steps to mitigate the potential impact, such as underwater noise mitigation, spill response planning and the closure of certain areas.
That didn't satisfy the Ninth Circuit.
''There is a paucity of analytic data to support the Park Service's conclusion that the mitigation measures would be adequate in light of the potential environmental harm,'' the ruling stated.
It's unclear whether vacation plans to Glacier Bay next summer will be spoiled by the ruling. The appeals court has left it up to the district court to decide when to implement the injunction. That gives the lower court the discretion to hold off on reducing the number of cruise ships allowed into the national park until after the upcoming tourist season.
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