ANCHORAGE (AP) -- An amendment to the Interior Department appropriations bill passed Thursday by the Senate would nullify a federal appeals court decision reducing the number of cruise ships allowed to sail into Glacier Bay National Park.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, wrote the amendment.
''It's a terrible mistake,'' said Chip Dennerlein, head of the National Parks Conservation Association's Alaska office. ''It's saying we trust the cruise ship industry, and in light of their performance over the last few years and I think that's ludicrous.''
Dennerlein was referring to recent illegal cruise ship discharges in the Inside Passage.
The Stevens' rider says the National Park Service must freeze cruise-ship entries at the current level, 138 ships per season, until it completes an environmental impact statement, as ordered by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Environmentalists want the number lowered, as the court required.
A three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based court told the Park Service on Feb. 23 to roll back cruise ship entries from 138 to 107 until it completes an exhaustive environmental study of how increased vessel traffic would affect Glacier Bay, particularly its endangered humpback whales. The judges said the federal agency erred by allowing a 30 percent increase in cruise ship traffic in 1996 without first conducting a full environmental review.
In deciding to up the number of ships, the Park Service did an environmental assessment, not a more rigorous environmental impact statement. The agency found that more ships would expose Glacier Bay's wildlife to threats from noise, oil spills, air pollution and the increased risk of vessel collisions. Despite that, the Park Service determined that increased vessel traffic would pose ''no significant impact'' to the environment and decided that a thorough scientific review was not warranted.
The cruise industry has lobbied for years to increase vessel entries into Glacier Bay National Park, saying more tourists want to visit it than current levels allow. Glacier Bay is inaccessible by road.
An aide to Stevens referred questions about the amendment to the Appropriations Committee, which the Alaska Republican used to chair. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., now presides over the panel.
Jen Siciliano, a committee spokeswoman, said Stevens' amendment ''simply funds the EIS'' on vessel entries and freezes the number until the study is complete. As far as environmentalists' demands that ship numbers be cut, Siciliano was blunt.
''They need to prove what they're alleging with regard to impacts to the park,'' she said.
Dennerlein said damage should be prevented before it happens, not afterward.
''You get the restraining order before the person is beaten up,'' he said.
The bill now heads to a conference committee for consideration.
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