Open road: Whittier braces for more tourists

Posted: Tuesday, May 23, 2000

WHITTIER -- For the 280 residents 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 in just a few weeks. 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's expected to bring up to 1.4 million visitors a year -- a more than ten-fold increase.

Hundreds of buses, recreational vehicles, trucks, and cars -- many of them towing trailers with boats -- will make their way through a 2.5 mile railroad tunnel through the Chugach Mountains that's been converted to handle vehicle traffic.

The city is expecting up to 4,000 visitors during peak summer days.

And life here will never be quite the same.

''It's the calm before the storm. 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 expected 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,'' said Rowley.

But visitors are not expected to spend much time in town.

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 wildlands. Bears, bald eagles, salmon, sea lions, harbor seals and whales make their home in the sound, which is part of the Chugach National Forest.

The state's growing tourism industry has been anxious to capitalize on the sound's dramatic scenery and abundant wildlife. But access 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 sees potentially disastrous impacts for 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,'' said Steiner, an environmental activist and biologist with the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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

Steiner suggested that the state delay the opening of the road to give state and federal agencies time to draw up a comprehensive plan to manage the increased use of the sound. But the state is moving forward with the current schedule.

''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, spokes-man 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 those whose experience has been limited to Alaska's lakes and rivers.

''We expect there will be people who are quite prepared for that transition and others not at all prepared. 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.

On a recent rainy afternoon, as a dense 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 says she moved to Whittier because she liked the isolation. ''I'm used to leaving my keys in the ignition and my car running.''

Monson expects the influx of visitors to bring an increase in crime.

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

''There's that big new fish plant in Anchorage. Overall, I'm in favor of the road for my own personal benefit, but I don't think it'll do any good for the town. It's gonna be porta-potty city,'' he said.

Whittier is unusual even by Alaska standards.

Most of the town's residents live in Begich Towers, a 14-story bomb-proof building left behind by the U.S. 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. With the exception of a few shanties near the harbor selling hamburgers, ice cream and T-shirts, Whittier doesn't have much to draw visitors.

''There's nothing to do here,'' said Monson.

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

''I think we're as prepared as we're going to be,'' said Rowley, the city manager. ''Whittier is going to reach a saturation point. There's only so many cars that can get through, and we'll deal with it as it comes.''

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

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