Tourism clouds Misty Fjords

Enlarged dock stirs access conflict

By Paula Dobbyn
Daily News reporter
© 1999 Anchorage Daily News (reprinted by permission)


Carved into the southern most tip of Alaska's coastal rain forest, a jagged inlet snakes into the heart of a vast wilderness called Misty Fjords National Monument. 


Use of the Goldbelt float in Rudyerd Bay has expanded to include tents and cooking facilities.   ROB SCHERER/Special to the Daily News.


Steep, fog-shrouded cliffs surround the inlet, known as Rudyerd Bay, one of the most photographed spots in the monument. Access is only by sea or air.

Under a new proposal, Rudyerd Bay would host an increased number of tourists and floatplanes. And that's caught the eye of the Forest Service, environmentalists and others who feel Misty Fjord's solitude will be diminished.

"We have substantial concerns over the effect this might have on the wilderness and other users," said Ketchikan District Ranger Jerry Ingersoll.

At 2.3 million acres, and about 50 boat miles east of Ketchikan, Misty Fjords was designated a national monument in 1978 by presidential proclamation. Congress made it official two years later with passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

Remote, beautiful places like Rudyerd Bay are becoming popular attractions for the growing number of cruise-ship passengers traveling to Southeast. And increasingly, conflicts are arising with locals who feel their quality of life is suffering.

Misty Fjords is the latest case in point.

 At the head of Rudyerd Bay sits a floating dock, owned by Alaska Cruises, a subsidiary of Goldbelt Inc., Juneau's urban Native corporation. Goldbelt acquired the float when it bought Alaska Cruises in January. This summer, the company is running boat tours of Rudyerd Bay, flying in up to 180 cruise ship passengers from Ketchikan every day. That number could double if demand prompts Goldbelt to purchase another boat, said Alaska Cruises president and chief executive Susan Bell.

"This is a spectacular experience," said Bell of the four-hour tours, which cost $199 per person.

 The company is operating without the necessary state and federal permits. In late July, Alaska Cruises applied for authorization, triggering a review by the Department of Natural Resources, the Division of Governmental Coordination and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Although the Forest Service manages the upland portion of the monument, the state controls the submerged lands. A Corps permit is also needed because the dock is within navigable waters.

The previous owners of Alaska Cruises, Dale Pihlman  and Cynthia McNulty, also operated the float without authorization for years. Nobody seemed too concerned until Goldbelt purchased a 65-foot vessel, the Majestic Fjord, and expanded the size of the 97-foot float to accommodate more people.

"Alaska Cruises provides an important public service-enabling Americans to see one of their national treasures," the company stated in the permit application. People who backpack and kayak are no more deserving of access than those who use motorized means, it said.

The Forest Service said it has fielded complaints from people who donít want any more airplane noise or boat traffic in Misty Fjords. One of them is Eric Hummel, executive director of the Ketchikan-based Tongass Conservation Society.

The group is not opposed to tourism, said Hummel, but itís the "weedlike" growth without planning that is worrisome.

"Anybody can come in and set up shop," Hummel said. "Thereís nothing to prevent me from putting in another float and setting up a concession to rent Jet Skis."

"Nonsense", Bell said.

"New tour operators donít spring up overnight and it is unreasonable to worry about a sudden flood of commercial activity in Rudyerd Bay just because the float is there," states her permit application.

At a recent oversight hearing in Anchorage, Goldbelt president Joe Beedle turned to Sen. Frank Murkowski, for help in getting the Forest Service off his back.

"We have had our timber economy taken away, and now it appears just as we begin to make a profit that tourism will not be allowed in the Tongass," Beedle said.

Even if the Forest Service objects to the project, it's largely up to the state to decide whether or not to authorize it. That's because the float is anchored to the ocean floor, which the state owns.

Department of Natural Resources Commissioner John Shivery said the matter has not reached his desk so he hasn't made any decision yet. But he said like anything else in Alaska, "when you have a growing economy some of the things people are accustomed to change." And it's the challenge of government to decide how much of the old values to preserve while still allowing for economic growth, he said.

Reporter Paula Dobbyn can be reached at pdobbyn@adn.com.

 

More articles:

Dock lacks state permit: Misty Fiords dock operated years without permission (Ketchikan Daily News July 30, 1999)

Floating dock permit sought: Alaska Cruises files application for Misty Fiords dock (Ketchikan Daily News August, 1999)

Tourism clouds Misty Fjords: Enlarged dock stirs access conflict (Anchorage Daily News August 13, 1999)

Misty Fjords tourism debated (Southeast Empire [Juneau] September 1, 1999 Permission to reprint pending)


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