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What will the Alaska oil spill mean to visitors this year?

One year ago this month-on March 24, 1989-the supertanker Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound. Within days, I I million gallons of oil had poured from the ship's cargo tanks. It drifted southwest, spreading over 2,600 square miles of ocean and fouling beaches from the Kenai Peninsula to the Alaska Peninsula.

The disaster's long-term effects environmental, economic, and legal-remain uncertain. At our press time, it was not known whether this winter's rough seas had helped disperse the 7.5 million gallons of oil remaining after last summer's cleanup operation. A second summer's cleanup seems likely, but isn't definite. Impact on fish, marine mammals, and birds is still being studied: by last October, the US. Fish and Wildlife Service had counted 36,471 dead birds including 151 bald eagles) and 1,016 sea otters--but actual fatalities may be three to ten times greater.

"It will take 20 to 70 years for some bird populations to recover," says David Cline, Alaska-Hawaii regional vice president for the National Audubon Society. "Most nesting bald eagles in the spill's path failed to reproduce last summer. Some seabird populations were decimated. And there's still oil in the environment." Devastating as the spill was, what will be its impact on Alaska visitors this year? If you have tickets for a cruise ship sailing the Inside Passage, or want to see Columbia Glacier (at the north end of Prince William Sound) or fish for coho salmon, will the spill affect your vacation plans? Here the news is more certain-and almost entirely good.

A big spill-but in a bigger state "At the start of last summer," says Dana Brockway, director of the Alaska Division of Tourism, "we knew tourists worried that places like Ketchikan had been ruined by oil-even though Ketchikan is hundreds of miles from the spill site." The spill contaminated nearly 1,100 miles of shoreline-a distance almost as long as the California coast. But Alaska's shoreline totals more than 33,000 miles, if you include islands. Many popular destinations, such as the Inside Passage, went entirely unaffected.

Even within Prince William Sound, the spill's effects were generally not obvious to the casual visitor. The worst-hit beaches lay hours south of the popular tour route from Whittier past Columbia Glacier to Valdez. Says Brad Phillips, whose 26 Glaciers Tours is based in Whittier, "News accounts made it seem as if everything were covered with oil. But in fact, there are few effects in the areas most visitors go to see."

To the southwest, Kenai Fjords and Katmai national parks were fouled by the spill but the afflicted shorelines were not easily viewed. "Last year was crazy, awful, terrible," says Anne Castellina, superintendent of Kenai Fjords National Park. "But for the general visitor, the spill didn't have much of an impact." Though 20 miles of Kenai's 400-mile-long coast were hit, those areas are far from the routes of the tour boats that are the way most visitors see the park.

But if the spill did not invariably make travelers' lives difficult, cleanup operations often did. "We were reeling," says Gary Kranenburg of the Valdez Convention and Visitors Bureau. As headquarters for the cleanup, Valdez doubled in size. Tour groups were bumped from motel rooms. Motels and restaurants lost staff to higher-paying jobs scrubbing beaches. "I think we bent over backwards to do things right," says Mr. Kranenburg. "But Valdez had to face an awful lot of problems a small town couldn't cope with." South-central Alaska hopes to get back to normal in 1990. Below is an update on cruise ships, fishing, and popular destinations. (All area codes are 907.)

Cruises. Cunard Line, Holland America, Princess Cruises, Regency Cruises, Royal Viking Line, and World Explorer Cruises all sail through Prince William Sound. None altered operations last year, and none plan to this year. Ships keep well to the north and east of the spill site; passengers should notice few effects. Fishing and wildlife-viewing. Without downplaying the spill's severe effect on wildlife, many tourist industry officials and naturalists believe that visitors to areas outside the oil's path will probably not notice a decrease in birds or marine mammals. Sportfishing for halibut and salmon should likewise be unaffected. Valdez. At our press time, it appeared extremely likely that Exxon would operate a second summer's cleanup-but from Anchorage rather than Valdez. Some operations may center here, but probably not on last year's scale. Motel space should be easier to find, but we still advise independent travelers to confirm motel availability with the visitors bureau, Box 1603, Valdez 99686; 835-2984.

Attractions around Valdez should be back to normal. Sportfishermen should be able to find boats for hire. Columbia Glacier and College Fiord were unaffected. Visitors who want to learn about the spill will find three sites of interest in Valdez: Alaska pipeline terminal. Gray Line of Alaska offers tours of the Alaska Marine Terminal, where oil from the trans-Alaska pipeline is transferred to tankers such as the Exxon Valdez. More time is spent explaining the pipeline and the terminal than discussing the oil spill, but exhibits and guides do touch on the accident from an industry viewpoint.

Tours (2 hours) run at 1 and 7 Pm. daily from mid-May to mid-September; cost is $16 for adults, $8 for ages under 11. To reserve, call 835-2357 or 277-5581. Prince William Sound Conservation Alliance, 310 Egan Street. Conservation group's center has spill exhibits, slide shows. Hours are 10 to 5 daily; 835-2799. Valdez Museum, Egan Drive and Chenega Avenue. The city museum has an interesting exhibit on the spill and media coverage of it. The museum is open 9 to 8 daily June through August. Admission is free; 835-2764.

Seward. At our press time, Exxon had no plans to run cleanup operations from this 2,400-person town on the east shore of the Kenai Peninsula. Lodging should be easier to find than last year, and all other visitor activities, such as sportfishing and boat tours to Kenai Fjords National Park, will run as usual. For details, write or call the Seward Chamber of Commerce, Box 749, Seward, 99664; 224-8051. Kenai Fjords National Park. Most visitors view this 580,000-acre park on tour boats out of Seward. Says Superintendent Anne Castellina, "Tour boat visitors probably won't see oil damage. People who kayak the area might run into tar balls on some beaches."

The long-term effects are still unknown. Says Castellina, "We don't know what will happen. On coasts where there's a lot of wave action, oil is being washed away. But a good bit of oil is left on sheltered beaches. We've lost a lot of birds. We've lost a lot of otters."

To determine the spill's impact, the National Park Service and other agencies set up monitoring stations. Park headquarters in Seward holds exhibits on the spill, and rangers are on hand to answer questions. For information, write or call Kenai Fjords National Park, Box 1727, Seward 99664; 224-3175.

Katmai National Park and Preserve. "We still have bears," says the park's superintendent, Ray Bane. "The fishing is still great, and the scenery is still spectacular." That's true even though this park--known for its volcanic landscape and for wildlife had some 300 of its 400 miles of coastline affected. Says Mr. Bane, "Outside of Prince William Sound, we were probably the hardest-hit area." However, visitors probably won't notice the damage-for two reasons. Most travelers stay inland, nearer the eastern side of the park. And though heavy amounts of oil remain, they're now covered by sand and invisible to any visitors who do tour the coast on charter boats or planes. "Much of the oil is still there," explains Mr. Bane. "It continues to impact the system, but it's not as intrusive." For information, write or call Katmai National Park and Preserve, Box 7, King Salmon 99613; 246-3305.

Kodiak. Commercial fishermen here suffered in the spill, but sportfishermen largely escaped-and sportfishing should be fine this year, too. Beaches of Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge and the eastern shore of Shuyak Island State Park were hit; still, most Kodiak visitors won't see oil or notice any decrease in wildlife. Kodiak may serve as a cleanup center tourist officials hope an increase in bed-and-breakfasts will meet the demand. For information, write or call Kodiak Island Convention and Visitors Bureau, 100 Marine Way, Kodiak 99615; 486-4782.

Homer. This hamlet on the southwestern Kenai Peninsula served as staging area for cleanup in the Cook Inlet. But all tourist activities-charter fishing, wildlife watching are back to normal. For information, call or write the Homer Chamber of Commerce, Box 541, Homer 99603; 235-7740.

The Pratt Museum, 3779 Bartlett Street, has a good oil-spill exhibit. It's open daily 10 to 6; admission is $3 adults, free for children under 18; 235-8635.

Learning more, volunteering

Along with Homer, Valdez, and Kenai Fjords National Park, these Anchorage locations also have exhibits on the spill.

Public Lands Information Center, 605 W. Fourth Ave., Anchorage 99501; 271-2737. Open 10 to 5 Tuesdays through Saturdays.

Chugach National Forest, 201 E. Ninth Ave., Anchorage 99501; 271-2500; open 7:30 to 4:30 weekdays. Headquarters holds exhibits; pick up a brochure on the spill. This forest may also have exhibits in Valdez-call this office for details.

Plans for volunteers to aid with cleanup had not been set at our press time. If you'd like information on how you can volunteer, call or write the Oil Reform Alliance, 700 H Street, Suite 4, Anchorage 99501; 274-3621.

For more on Prince William Sound, write to Prince William Sound Tourism Coalition, Box 1477, Valdez 99686.

Telephone corrections

The special section on Pacific Travel Discoveries that appeared in the February Sunset has two wrong telephone numbers.

On page 108, Royal Viking Line's number should be (800) 422-8000. On page 114, the Australian Tourist Commission's should be (800) 678-8022.
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Date:Mar 1, 1990
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