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Little Alaska town braces for influx of tourists with opening of road

Posted: Tuesday, May 23, 2000

WHITTIER, Alaska (AP) -- For the 280 people of this Prince William Sound port, tucked away at the end of a long bay and surrounded by mountains, isolation has been both a blessing and a curse. But that seclusion is about to end.

After more than 20 years of planning and legal wrangling, an $80 million road to Whittier is nearing completion.

The town is bracing for a crush of tourists unlike anything it has seen before. When the road opens June 7, it is expected to bring up to 1.4 million visitors a year -- a more than tenfold increase.

Hundreds of buses, recreational vehicles, trucks, and cars -- many of them towing boats -- will make their way through a 2.5-mile railroad tunnel under the Chugach Mountains that has been converted to handle vehicle traffic. The town is expecting up to 4,000 visitors during peak summer days.

Life here will never be quite the same.

''Right now, we're not quite sure what to expect,'' said Matt Rowley, acting city manager. ''I think there are a lot of people in town that are still in denial.''

In the few weeks since the snow has melted, a developer has been scrambling to build parking for the influx of vehicles. City officials are hoping the two public restrooms and a few portable toilets will be enough to handle the crowds.

''It could get interesting,'' Rowley said.

Whittier sits at the doorstep to Prince William Sound. With its snow-capped mountains, glaciers, islands dense with towering spruce trees and 2,000 miles of shoreline, it is one of the state's most spectacular areas. Bears, bald eagles, salmon, sea lions, seals and whales make their home in the sound.

The state's tourism industry has been eager to capitalize on the sound's natural attractions. But reaching Whittier from Anchorage, 60 miles to the north, has been difficult. Since Whittier was established as a supply depot in World War II, it has been accessible only by limited train service.

''Prince William Sound is certainly one of the prime attractions in the tourism business,'' said Brad Phillips, who has operated a tour company offering day cruises of the sound from Whittier for 42 years. ''Not everybody's a backpacker or a kayaker. I deal a lot with the blue-haired crowd, and they want to see Prince William Sound, too.''

But where Phillips sees opportunity, Rick Steiner, an environmental activist and University of Alaska biologist, sees potentially disastrous effects on Prince William Sound, still recovering from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

''Opening that tunnel is sort of like opening Pandora's box in one of the last wonderful, coastal wilderness areas we have in the nation,'' he said.

Steiner fears recreational boaters will get too close to seal pups, killer whales and endangered sea lions. In the years to come, he envisions floating restaurants and bars in now-quiet coves, and lodges in the forests.

Steiner suggested that the state delay the opening of the road and work with the federal government to draw up a comprehensive plan to deal with the crowds. But the state is moving forward.

''We really see this as a positive opportunity to bring greater access to a unique and spectacular part of Alaska and make Prince William Sound more accessible to more people,'' said Bob King, spokesman for Gov. Tony Knowles. ''We see no reason to delay it any further.''

The Coast Guard is preparing for the expected increase in boaters, particularly inexperienced ones. ''Prince William Sound is beautiful, pristine and quite unpredictable weatherwise, and you really need to prepare differently,'' said Sue Hargis, boating safety coordinator for the Coast Guard.

While Whittier's natural beauty is breathtaking, its manmade aspects are positively bleak.

Most of the town's residents live in Begich Towers, a 14-story bomb-proof building left behind by the Army. The building also houses the city offices, the post office, a grocery store and medical clinic.

The Army built Whittier at the end of Passage Canal as a strategic, ice-free port during the 1940s. World War II-era warehouses, barracks and military buildings and a rail yard dominate the center of town.

There are no sidewalks, and pedestrians have to dodge potholes, puddles and train tracks. Apart from a few shanties selling hamburgers, ice cream and T-shirts, Whittier doesn't have much to draw visitors, and there's not much to do.

It won't be that way for long. Several big projects are in the works, including construction of a second small boat harbor, a warehouse to hold 300 boats, a shopping area, additional public restrooms and a bicycle path. But none of those projects are expected to be completed for this summer's tourist traffic.

On a recent rainy afternoon, as a thick fog obscured the town from the windows of the Anchor Inn, residents talked about the road with a mix of anticipation, concern and resignation.

''I think it's going to be a nuthouse here this summer,'' said Tammy Monson, a 13-year resident who moved to Whittier for the isolation. ''I'm used to leaving my keys in the ignition and my car running.'' She said she expects the influx of visitors to bring an increase in crime.

Paul Heimbuch, who has fished the Prince William Sound for the past 10 years, said the opening of the road will mean more markets for his fish.

''Overall, I'm in favor of the road for my own personal benefit,'' he said, ''but I don't think it'll do any good for the town. It's going to be porta-potty city.''

See Whittier not a threat to Kenai tourism story for a local slant to this story.



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