Vessel traffic in Glacier Bay is managed in accordance with a November, 2003 Decision based on a Vessel Quotas and Operating Requirements Environmental Impact Statement (VQOR EIS, see below) completed that year.
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve comprises 3.3 million acres and encompasses 940 square miles of marine waters. It is home to the endangered humpback whale, the threatened Steller sea lion and other fauna, and flora. It is also a major visitor destination, where most visitors come to the park in watercraft. Vessel numbers and operating requirements have been in place for Glacier Bay since 1979 due to concerns that marine traffic might adversely affect endangered humpback whales. Managers now recognize that vessels may directly or indirectly affect a variety of marine and coastal wildlife, flora, air and water quality, wilderness character, and the visitor experience. Legislation that established the National Park Service (NPS) and Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, as well as other laws, oblige NPS to anticipate and mitigate the potential effects of vessels on park resources and values.
A vessel permit system has regulated the number of entries into the bay for cruise ships, tour boats, charter boats, and private boats since 1985. Regulations at that time initially allowed a 20 per cent increase in vessel quotas beyond 1976 use levels and provided for further planning to be undertaken after that level was achieved. The 20 per cent increase was authorized in two increments; these were attained in 1988.
Regulations establishing a new vessel quota system, operating requirements, special use areas and mitigation measures were finalized in May 1996 (36 CFR 13.65) based on a vessel management plan and environmental assessment (VMP/EA) finalized in a March 1996 Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI). The plan also was based on and included a National Marine Fisheries Service Biological Opinion on the humpback whale, Steller sea lion, and gray whale. The NPS, in coordination with the U.S. Geological Survey, Alaska Science Center, developed a research program based on the conservation recommendations of the Biological Opinion.
The 1996 Omnibus Act (P.L. 104-333) prohibited NPS from imposing on permittees the VMP operating conditions related to air, water and oil pollution beyond those enforced by other agencies on permittees. In addition, noise abatement was prohibited unless scientific information supports a determination that such restrictions are necessary.
In a complaint filed in District Court in May 1997 (NPCA v. Babbitt), the National Parks and Conservation Association claimed that NPS should have prepared an environmental impact statement (EIS) rather than an EA, based on the uncertainty regarding potential effects of increased vessel quotas. The District Court upheld the NPS VMP/EA in its August 1999 decision. The NPCA appealed and, on February 23, 2001, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the portion of the 1996 VMP and the implementing regulations that authorized an increase in vessels into Glacier Bay violated the National Environmental Policy Act. It also prohibited NPS from allowing further increases in vessel traffic, and traffic levels were returned to their pre-1996 levels.
On November 5, 2001, Public Law 107-63 (155 Stat 414) was signed into law. Section 130 of the act required preparation of an EIS to identify and analyze the possible effects of the 1996 increases in the number of vessel entries issued for Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. That EIS was completed in October, 2003 and in November, 2003 a record of decision was made that established vessel quotas and operating requirements based on public input and the findings of the EIS.
Last updated: February 25, 2021