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Kayak and recreational boater use in western Prince William Sound has more than doubled in the 10 years since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, according to a study by the U.S. Forest Service. And with the road to Whittier scheduled to open in the spring of 2000, the boaters are expected to keep coming.
A progress report on the two-year study was presented Wednesday at the Egan Civic & Convention Center, where about 600 scientists, government officials, researchers and students are gathered this week for a four-day conference marking the 10th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Using about $200,000 of the $1 billion oil spill settlement money, the Forest Service is developing a computer program to study and create a model of current human-use patterns in the Sound. The model will allow land managers to track growth and identify and protect sensitive wildlife areas from overuse.
It was 10 years ago Wednesday that the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, spilling at least 11 million gallons of crude oil. Two years after the spill, Exxon paid the state and federal governments $1 billion to settle criminal and civil claims pending against the oil company. About $180 million of that money has funded scientific studies and research like the Forest Service's recreational-use study.
While scientists sat through workshops on topics like "Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia Virus in Herring," and "Subtidal Bivalve Population Structure in Prince William Sound," about 30 demonstrators gathered at noon Wednesday in front of the Calais Building on C Street where Exxon's office is located. With stickers on their chests that said, "Shame on Exxon," and a 40-foot banner that said, "Government and oil partners in pollution," the protesters waved to passing cars.
"Exxon is not telling the truth," said Lloyd Montgomery of Cordova, one of the protesters. "The Sound is still dead."
Also in Anchorage, Natives gathered at the Spenard Recreation Center to discuss the spill's effects on subsistence hunting and fishing.
About 50 people gathered for a brief rally on the steps of the Capitol in Juneau. Demonstrators called on Exxon to stop fighting the $5 billion jury verdict awarded fishermen, Natives, landowners and others hurt by the spill. The verdict was reached in 1994, but Exxon is appealing.
On Wednesday, Democrats in the state Legislature introduced nonbinding resolutions calling on Exxon to pay. "Money can't buy back Prince William Sound, but it can help bring closure," said Rep. Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat who sponsored the measure in the House.
"We must be ever-vigilant in protecting our environment," said Sen. Georgianna Lincoln, a Rampart Democrat who introduced the resolution in the Senate. "We must never, never forget .... We must not let history repeat itself in this regard."
Exxon spokesman Ed Burwell in company headquarters in Texas said the company had no comment about Wednesday's protests.
At the Egan Center, Karen Murphy with the Forest Service said that agency is concentrating on documenting current recreational use in the western stretches of the Sound. Additionally, it collected data compiled by Alaska Pacific University, the Whittier Harbor, Whittier charter operators, water-taxi services, and others to document the increase in recreational use in the past 10 years.
The model the agency is working on is designed to track growth by five types of users, including kayakers, commercial fishing boats, ferries, charter boats and other recreational boats.
So far, the study shows that the highest use in the western Sound is in July. For example, in July 1997, there were 800 boat trips in and out of the harbor. During the same period 491 kayaks were in the Sound, reports show.
Murphy said the Forest Service wants to expand the model to the eastern stretches of the Sound, including traffic out of Valdez and Cordova.
She said the project will be completed by next fall. By then the Forest Service hopes to have models that show how use patterns may change as more people pour into the Sound. The information will help managers ensure that the increased human use doesn't interfere with wildlife species still recovering from the spill.
* Daily News reporter Robert Kowalski contributed to this report. Reporter Natalie Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org