The sea lions in recovering Prince William Sound are a major hit with tourists, who sometimes have to choose between looking at them or watching humpback whales.© Todd Smith / Wildland Adventures
A sea otter pops its fuzzy head above water in the foreground of this stunning scene at Procession Rocks in Alaska’s western Prince William Sound as skipper Alexandra Von Wichman watches from her 58-foot-long charter yacht, The Babkin. Two or three humpback whales swim far off to the right, near shore, their long backs curving above waterline, forcing Von Wichman to ponder an enviable question for people in the tourism trade. Should she give her half-dozen charter passengers a better view of the whales or stay within binocular’s view of the sea lions, both rare enough to be listed as threatened or endangered species?
Having already admired humpbacks earlier on this multi-day trip past bridal-veil waterfalls and glaciers as thick as a house, the decision is clear. Sea lions. "They’re my favorite," Von Wichman yells over the din of the motor. "They have so much personality. Sometimes, you"ll be kayaking and all of a sudden you"ll hear a snort, and you"ll have four or five sea lions following your kayak. It scares the daylights out of you because you realize this thing is almost as big as you are."
Utter wilderness is what lucky visitors seek—and get—from the western reaches of labyrinthine fjords of Prince William Sound. But the feeling that you’re traveling through a series of beautiful landscape paintings may erode now that the remote area expects its first marine gas station. To backcountry enthusiasts, the idea is as incongruous as finding a Starbucks at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Some lodges are also expected to go up, breaking the escape-from-civilization hypnotic feel of the place. Builders have sought permits from the state Department of Natural Resources for floating inns and convenience stores. At least eight lodges have received the go-ahead to be built in tidelands, says Pat Lavin, Prince William Sound project manager for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), which is urging protection of the Sound. Even the idea of a backcountry liquor store has been floated (but declined).
Fueling this interest is tourism, even though people are drawn to the place by its wildness. "I"m hoping it doesn’t get so much of a boost that it’s not going to be a wilderness experience anymore," says Linda Bassett, an Anchorage resident who works alongside Von Wichman in providing ecotours through Seattle-based Wildland Adventures.
In 2000, when the state completed a 2.5-mile-long road tunnel to the scruffy former military-camp outpost of Whittier (population 300), Prince William Sound suddenly became within a two-hour’s drive of more than half of Alaska’s 620,000 residents and any tourist landing at Anchorage International Airport. The state expects a 15-fold rise in visitors reaching the Sound via Whittier alone, rising from 100,000 to 1.5 million. Sport fishing is growing by eight percent a year, according to the NWF, and kayak traffic is up 7.5 percent a year. Some people fear the arrival of city-sized cruise ships to Whittier can’t be far behind.
Trouble is, no one has planned for the effects that this growing popularity will have on the pretty waters of Prince William Sound, which, 13 years after the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil, still hasn’t fully recovered. New scientific evidence shows that, even in tiny concentrations, oil continues to attack the base of the marine food chain. Of 28 damaged species and resources monitored by the state-federal Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, only two have fully recovered—bald eagles and river otters.
"We had an oil spill in 1989, and now we’re going to have a people spill," fears Jim Adams, a NWF attorney who co-authored a 2001 report on Prince William Sound that names the Chenega area—including Procession Rocks—one of five "highest priority" hotspots requiring protection.
Even before the road to Whittier opened, environmentalists were up in arms. "In the long run, the opening of this road could bring more permanent damage to Prince William Sound than the oil spill," said Stanley Senner, Alaska Audubon Society executive director. "We still have not seen recovery in the Sound, and now we’re adding insult to injury."
Only one ranger now patrols all state parks that border the Sound, as well as 20-odd state lands outside that area, laments Pat Lavin, NWF’s Prince William Sound project manager. His organization is challenging state and federal land managers to create a plan to protect the Sound from unrestrained development.
Compounding matters, much of the rest of the land surrounding the Sound is owned by the Chugach National Forest, the nation’s second-largest. The Bush administration angered environmentalists last July when it designated only 1.4 million of Chugach’s 5.6 million acres as wilderness. That’s less than even the Reagan administration proposed (1.6 million). Environmentalists complain that it’s a hollow designation—65 percent of the "wilderness" is rocks and glacial ice, not important habitat. Bays and estuaries don’t get protection, presumably leaving them open for development of lodges and marinas of industrial tourism. While Lavin’s organization is appealing the wilderness designation, some other people are bracing for lodging to sprout up on the banks.
Industrial-scale tourism hasn’t hit yet, and Lavin hopes it never does. So for now, Von Wichman still might hear only two airplanes fly overhead during a five-day cruise through the western Sound, and see more orcas and endangered marbled murrelets than boats. When she follows a foot trail through tall grasses on land, she still follows paths created by black bear—not by people.
Naturalist Todd Smith, who also serves as general manager of Wildland Adventures, says any new building "will certainly impact the feeling of wilderness. I think people come to Alaska seeking something. Oftentimes, they’re not able to describe it, but they’re seeking untouched forest and wildlife, from bald eagles and bears to wolves. The Lower 48 already faced these threats 50 years ago, and now we’re catching up."