Cruise Control

How a Small Band of Activists Fought Alaska’s Tour Industry – and Won


cruise ship in dock photo, leafletter speaking with friendly passengersJeff Brady, Skagway News

On August 22, 2006, a political earthquake shook The Last Frontier. Defying expectations, Alaskans approved a ballot initiative to reform the state’s powerful cruise ship industry. Under the new law, each passenger pays a $50 head tax, and the state collects a portion of ships’ gambling receipts. Cruise companies must disclose their profits from ship-promoted shore excursions, while independent on-board “Ocean Rangers” monitor pollution control practices on every ship in the state’s waters. The Alaskan law holds cruise ships to higher pollution standards than required by any other port.

Industry fought the Alaska Cruise Ballot Initiative with a fear campaign threatening economic ruin if the measure were to pass. Alaskan cruises are big business, accounting for eight percent of the global cruise industry, and in 2006, cruisers took nearly a million customers to Alaska. That same year, according to the Alaska Cruise Association, Alaskan workers and businesses received $1.2 billion in cruise-related income. To fight the initiative, industry golden-egged the public – but after years of poorly treating many port towns, its goose was cooked. Preening and bluster proved insufficient to sway a Red State electorate from voting for increased corporate responsibility.

From Molokai to Reykjavik, swelling cruise ship visitation promises an economic lifeline to far-flung coastal communities. Once the deal is struck, however, the devil takes the details. Ships drain municipal water and energy stores, disgorge thousands of pedestrians into communities often unequipped to handle them, jam traffic, and foul local air and water. In 2006, P&O Cruise Line was caught secreting 7,000 cubic meters of oil sludge into pits on Vanuatu in the South Pacific. In South Florida, cruise-generated sewage (210,000 gallons per 3,000-passenger ship per week) may be smothering coral reefs. On busy ship days, blue air blankets the fjord between Juneau and Skagway, creating what The New York Times calls a “hazy pollution” imposed on an otherwise wild backdrop.

For decades, the Love Boat shimmer blinded port towns to the long-term impacts on communities’ quality of life. Alaskans got paid to dress up and chitchat with celebrities and wannabes, and Main Street shops did a fine business. But many communities found that, in the process, they had lost the soulfulness locals treasured. Fed up with big-boat arrogance, residents of my small town took on a huge industry with a citizen campaign that asked the cruise ships only to play fair.

“They have no business polluting local waters, and we believe our communities deserve a fair share of their profits,” says Gershon Cohen, one of the co-authors of the Alaska initiative. “They are selling our home.”

“Home” for Cohen, myself, and 3,500 other human residents, is one of two tiny towns – Haines and Skagway – located at the head of Lynn Canal, a seawater fjord deeper than the Grand Canyon at the northern end of Alaska’s Inside Passage. Here we cling to the margins of a spectacular landscape in two towns marked by our antipodal relationships with cruisers. While Skagway markets itself as industry-friendly, Haines residents remain stubbornly independent. In Skagway, as many as 900,000 tourists a summer are greeted by the faux frontier scenery of Klondike stereotypes. In Haines, artists, craftsmen, wilderness guides, and telecommuters mix on Main Street with fishers, gyppo loggers, evangelists, and miners. Cruise ships are as much an intrusion as they are an opportunity. Ships enter our lives, small cities on the move, consuming beauty, belching waste. At the very least, we expect them to behave.

Tucked into the recesses of a vertical kingdom of ice and rock, Haines hunkers on the bottom of a literal fishbowl where the Chilkat and Chilkoot Rivers cut through fjord walls to meet an ocean from which millions of salmon return each year. Attracted by a November chum salmon run, upwards of 4,000 bald eagles congregate along a stretch of the Chilkat called the Council Grounds. Just upstream, the Tlingit village of Klukwan guards the confluence of the rivers as it has for millennia.

Conservationist John Muir gave a speech here in 1879 that convinced the fierce northern Tlingits to build a Presbyterian mission. A quarter-century later, the US Army built its first Alaskan post, Fort William Henry Seward, to guard commerce in the Lynn Canal. Most passenger steamers eschewed Haines for Skagway’s gold rush trailhead an hour north; still, a community born of God and guns acquired a look of permanence. By the 1960s, two lumber mills processed the huge rafts of Tongass trees clear cut along Alaska’s Inside Passage and tugged north to Haines.

When economics stopped the saws in 1989, tensions soared between loggers and greenies. Just before feuding parties grabbed their guns, however, 1990 brought record incomes when Disney chose Haines as the location for White Fang. The world got a glimpse of our jaw-dropping scenery, and community leaders envisioned a bridge into a clean economy: cruise ship tourism.

In the final summer season of the 20th century, 90,000 cruise ship passengers disembarked in Haines. Back then, we called them “luxury liners,” and the cruisers were touted as semi-green sugar daddies that pulled into town, dropped off bagfuls of money, and went away. The jump in tourist trade brought new gift shops and restaurants. Property values climbed. Schools bulged with children of families new to town, staking their lives on the coming of ships.

Hopes sank on July 21, 1999 when Haines’s biggest cruise client, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines (RCCL), pleaded guilty in federal court to routinely dumping toxic effluent in Lynn Canal, and agreed to pay a $27 million fine for its violations. Just weeks after the court ruling, tensions rose when some residents piloted a satirical float, Poisoner of the Sea, in the annual Southeast State Fair parade. “We get the profit, you get the poison,” read a sign on the ship’s stern. During the parade, two Haines businessmen attacked the float with rotten tomatoes, and in the process pelted a 14-year-old girl in the face. Cohen’s daughter, Sarah, was the target for the tomato assault, which built to a To Kill a Mockingbird trial that ended in convictions. The story ricocheted across the state, drawing the attention of the Alaska Tolerance Commission, which confirmed that “Haines has a reputation, and it’s no secret.”

Less than a week after the parade attack, more than 100 protesters met an RCCL ship and distributed pamphlets to the 2,500 passengers. Despite a thunderous downpour, local residents carried signs reading “Clean Tourism, Not Toxic Terrorism” and “RCCL – Class Action Criminal Liars.” Two days after the protest, RCCL canceled its contracts with vendors whose employees participated in the protest.

Fifteen miles up the Canal, Skagway hardly reacted to news of the dumpings.

“The announcement came in the height of the season,” says Buckwheat Donahue, Skagway’s tourism director. “Haines’s problems were hardly a blip on our radar. We’re capitalists over here.”

Skagway has hosted a procession of big ships since its founding in 1897. Gold lust sent tens of thousands of Ninety-Eighters tramping onto steamers bound for Skagway, gateway to the Klondike. Completion of the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad in 1900 guaranteed access from Skagway into the Yukon Territory’s mineral wealth, which kept the train supplying ships long after the stream of prospectors fizzled.

South view of Broadway at 3rd street, Skagway, Alaska; Cruise ship visible at street end Jeff Brady, Skagway NewsAs many as 900,000 tourists a summer visit Skagway
to enjoy faux frontier scenery.

Waning mineral development in the Yukon killed the train on October 8, 1982. Facing uncertain times, Skagway dwindled to 400 residents. That was the winter Buckwheat Donahue showed up. “Except for the store and the gas station,” he recalls, “town was all boarded up. A real starter kit.” Ownership of many gold rush era buildings went to a newly designated Klondike Gold Rush Historical Park, which poured federal funds into a facelift that spurred new businesses. Despite the train’s demise, cruise ship visitation grew by 225 percent through the ’80s. The rebirth of the railroad in 1988 signaled a new era in mega-tourism – instead of iron ore, the train was dedicated to the ride.

“Before the train went down, cruise ships were the gravy,” declares Skagway News publisher-editor Jeff Brady, who has reported on the tourist industry for three decades. “Then they became the meat.”

With as many as 14 trains daily up and back the White Pass, by 2000 the railroad had become Alaska’s top shore excursion. Today, as many as five ships at a time snuggle at the Skagway dock. On such occasions, perhaps 10,000 people funnel at once onto the boardwalks of Broadway, Mall of the Frontier.

“Our quality of life has improved because there are more choices,” Donahue says. Burly and white-bearded, Donahue looks the part of the classic sourdough. He punctuates the advantages of a $7 million tax base with his stubby fingers: new medical clinic, school, recreation center, ball fields, and, of course, more dock space. “But there are sacrifices,” Donahue mutters. When I ask him for specifics, the tourism director guffaws. “Lines at the bank are a lot longer than they used to be.”

If Royal Caribbean’s convictions threw Hainiacs into action, the tomato in Sarah Cohen’s face was arguably the shot fired over the bow of a movement that transformed the cruise ship industry.

“It was really a first taste for us as to how greed, inspired by this industry, could warp the social fabric of our town,” says her father, who organized the protest against RCCL’s Rhapsody of the Seas with the aid of local activist Tim Shields.

Within a week of the dockside protest, RCCL president Jack Williams and three vice presidents flew up from the company’s Miami headquarters for a scripted remorse and a promise to be “the most environmentally responsible cruise line in the world.” Williams had ample opportunity to rehearse. When other violations surfaced in 1996 and 1998, he argued that because the ships were foreign-flagged, the company was outside the state of Alaska’s jurisdiction, even as it dumped sludge in our waters.

In Haines, some 150 people squeezed into the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall for the meeting with the RCCL officials. Following expressions of contrition from the executives, the locals laid into them. We complained of tar balls on our beaches and decimated salmon stocks. Tlingit chief Joe Hotch demanded compensation for lost fish. “I’m talking about my life,” Hotch declared to the executives. “My fight is just beginning.”

“But you’ll see,” sighed Williams. “We’ve changed the culture of this company. We want to be good neighbors.” After calling a “bathroom break,” Williams and his partners slipped out a back door and, like their ships, stole away to the next port. In Skagway, Williams and his entourage were embraced as royalty, with apologies for the behavior of “those lunatics in Haines.”

In an effort to go beyond protest and hold RCCL accountable for its actions, that October, Haines citizens passed a four percent tax on each cruise ship passenger. Calling Haines an “unfriendly port,” Norwegian Cruise Lines quickly announced plans to pull out, followed by Princess and Special Expeditions. Within 16 months, all major cruise lines dropped Haines from their itineraries. Businesses evaporated.

After calling for a “bathroom break,” the Royal Caribbean executives slipped out a back door and, like their ships, stole away to the next port.

“It was a clear signal to the town that ye shall not protest against us or we shall smite your business,” Cohen says. His wide-open raptor eyes are framed by two inches of curly turf carpeting scalp and face. Biochemist by training, potter by trade, Cohen and his wife moved to Haines in the early ’80s, when I did; we built our houses in the same rural neighborhood seven miles out of town. Each summer, we catch the year’s stores of salmon together in the waters we watch from our kitchen windows. In 1992, Cohen founded the Alaska Clean Water Alliance; six years later, he started up an Earth Island project, Campaign to Safeguard America’s Waters (CSAW), which he heads today. In his spare time, he plays chess and coaches the high school debate team. Gershon Cohen lives to devise strategy.

The cruise industry’s cavalier treatment of our home catalyzed Cohen’s energies. He helped write a bill that the US Congress passed to reduce blackwater discharges from cruise ships in Alaska. Then he turned to the Alaska legislature for stronger regulations, and successfully urged the state Senate to pass a $50 head tax. But the Alaska House refused to pass the law. “By the time the bill got out of special session,” Cohen recalls, “cruise lobbyists numbered almost one to one with legislators.” A watered-down version of the law, finally passed by the Alaska Legislature in 2001, was scarcely better than the broad federal statute.

While technology upgrades and voluntary industry programs to review on-board environmental controls and practices softened perceptions of cruise ships, few Alaskans were satisfied. As Republican State Senator Carl Gatto put it: “They have cleaned up their act and I am so grateful that they have, but in the words of a great orator, ‘Trust, but verify.’”

Stymied by the special interests in Juneau, Cohen decided to take his campaign directly to the state’s infamously independent-minded citizenry. Working with attorney Joe Geldhof, Cohen wrote a ballot initiative that would put a $50 tax on each cruise passenger to pay for port infrastructure and maintenance; impose a 33 percent tax on on-board gambling profits; require independent water quality monitors on each ship; and mandate the cruise companies to disclose their relationships with on-shore excursion companies.

With a campaign budget of less than $10,000, Cohen and Geldhof worked with an Anchorage-based campaign manager to coordinate signature-gatherers who braved sub-zero temperatures to gather the 29,000 signatures needed to put the initiative to a vote. Even as the lieutenant governor reviewed the petitions at the end of the year, industry advocates launched a counter-assault that would intensify up to the August 22, 2006 vote.

Everything about the ballot measure was unfair, according to the Northwest Cruise Association (NWCA), a Canadian-based trade group representing fleets of foreign-flagged vessels. It was punitive, un-American, and would guarantee economic ruin for Alaskan families and businesses. A Haines businesswoman quoted a Holland America agent, saying that “Every cruise line that goes to Alaska will look at pulling at least one ship out,” pointing to the threat of increased sailings on the Eastern seaboard.

“That’s ludicrous,” Cohen says. “People are not going to visit Baltimore instead of coming to Alaska on a cruise.”

In the months leading up to the vote, NWCA hired conservative Portland-based Pac/West Communications to engineer a $1.5 million statewide media blitz. Alaskans endured a firestorm of ads, mailers, and broadcast spots threatening economic collapse. In mid-August, industry unfurled “a national survey [that] has shown that almost half of the people considering a trip to Alaska would reconsider coming if a head tax was imposed. If this head tax resulted in even a 1% reduction [their emphasis] in the amount of visitors, Alaska would lose over $20 million in economic activity and over 250 jobs.”

Central Command for the initiative campaign was Cohen’s desk on the third floor of a house he built 20 years ago. Other than appearances on a handful of radio talk shows, the campaign rarely led Cohen away from his spectacular view. Maintaining connection by phone and Internet, Cohen established himself as a key source for journalists writing about the ballot measure. In a smart bit of strategy, Cohen passed up alliances with Alaska’s environmental organizations. “Industry tried to label [the ballot measure] as a greenie plot, but none of the major conservation organizations in the state supported it,” he says. “Their support could have damaged the chances of passage.”

After enduring months of intense industry campaigning, Cohen says that hope glimmered for him only two weeks before the election. Air time with a handful of conservative radio talk shows in Anchorage proved broad-based support when “nearly every caller” agreed that the time had come for the cruise ships to pay a greater share of the costs they imposed on the state.

Beyond “a few radio spots and some bus signs,” the grassroots campaign did little but rely on the cruise industry’s penchant for overkill. “Their deceitful behavior was the biggest weapon in our arsenal,” Cohen says. The cruise ship lines ran ads that listed supporters who had never been contacted. Businesses solicited voter registrations from temporary out-of-state employees. A cruise trade group promoted itself as Alaska-based when most of the money came from Miami. “By repeatedly exposing their lies, we won over Alaska voters and the editorial boards of the state’s major newspapers.” In the final hour, Anchorage Daily News and Juneau Empire endorsed the measure.

A week before the election, Cohen discovered that the Alaska Division of Elections was investigating illegal absentee voting sites on cruise-owned facilities near Denali National Park. Affiliated hotels attempted to establish absentee polling stations, staffed with employees checking voter ID, both election law violations. The investigation was front page news in the three largest Alaska newspapers. Cruise flacks quickly denied and dissembled.

Even the election scandal was trumped, Cohen says, when “God played the final card.” Three days before the election, a cruise ship pulled into the Seward dock with a dead fin whale draped over its bow. Media across the state published the photo, which, for many Alaskans, was the last cruise image they saw before stepping into the voting booth.

“There’s still breath on the mirror of democracy,” Geldhof declared the morning after 53 percent of Alaskan voters approved the initiative. The first time I saw Gershon Cohen after the election victory, he was tottering with a bemused Zen-ishness, like a man just told that he’s about to become a father. The electorate delivered a bouncing bundle: Of the two dozen Alaska coastal communities directly impacted by cruise ships, only Ketchikan and Skagway voted the initiative down. Alarmed by the outcome, Skagway business owner Steve Hites declared that the new law could usher an era of fewer ships, reduced income, and “ramifications we can’t even imagine.”

Cohen can imagine. In 2007, the state of Alaska implemented the new fees and developed its Ocean Rangers program, which by this summer will include rangers aboard every ship in Alaska waters. NGOs and government officials have contacted Cohen about launching similar programs in Antarctica, the Galapagos Islands, Iceland, Greenland, Panama, Costa Rica, and California. All part of the plan, Cohen says. “The immediate next step for this campaign is to get ocean rangers onboard the ships that travel the west coast of North America. From there, we hope to have a national bill in Congress.”

Turned out, Haines’s loss of ships didn’t quell tourists’ desire to visit. Shuttle services between Haines and Skagway has increased in recent years, bringing tens of thousands across the fjord. A year after the cruise ship initiative passed, both towns experienced rising ship numbers. Based on increased dockings, Haines tour officials predict that the 2008 season will bring nearly as many visitors as back in 1999, when all hell broke loose. With over 900,000 cruisers expected this year, Skagway stands again to be the biggest per capita recipient of head tax receipts required by the new cruise ship regulations, which in 2007 were almost $5 million.

Over cheeseburgers and iced tea, Buckwheat Donahue and I discuss the irony of Skagway’s relationship with cruise reform. “No irony,” says the tourism czar. “This is a pro-industry town.” The big man expels a snort over his town’s substantial benefit from the head tax. “The City of Skagway ought to send Gershon Cohen a thank-you card.”

“And we don’t even need it,” says Skagway News editor Jeff Brady as he slides into a seat at our table.

Donahue shoots Brady a dirty glare. Both men turn to me as one and say: “But we’ll take it.”

Daniel L. Henry lives with his wife and their 10-year-old son on the roadless side of a bay near Haines, Alaska. The Pushcart Prize-winning writer’s work will appear in the University of Alaska Press anthology, Crosscurrents North: Alaskans on the Environment, due July 2008.

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