WHITTIER, ALASKA — Even by Alaska's unique standards, Whittier is an oddity.
In a land known most for its incomprehensible vastness, this town of 300 people is a study in constriction. The steep Chugach Mountains surround Whittier on three sides, making boat, rail, and the occasional, perilous float-plane ride the only ways in or out of town. And when the epic Alaskan winter descends, some of the state's heaviest snows make cabin fever inevitable - especially since most of the town lives in the same cabin.
Two of every 3 residents live in the 14-story Begich Tower, a concrete relic left behind by the United States Army. The Army used Whittier's deep harbor and rail line as a supply port during World War II and decamped in the 1950s. The hulking edifice also houses Whittier town offices, the library, and a store.
But this hermetically sealed town 50 miles southeast of Anchorage might not remain so much longer. Members of the tourism industry and state politicians see Whittier as a potential tourism jackpot and are willing to put $60 million dollars into a new five-mile, one-lane road to it - mostly paid for with federal money. As the conflict develops, the road plan has come to embody the struggle to reconcile development and nature in a state defined by its wilderness.
Many long-time locals see no need to change the status quo. "Most of the people who want it don't have anything here," says shopkeeper Brenda Tolman, who has accumulated newspaper clippings on the project since the 1970s. "Your people who have actually made a commitment [to the town] don't want it."
A lawsuit by environmentalists aimed at stopping the road is the the last hope for many locals. But even this hope took a blow last week as the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals lifted an injunction on construction. A final decision is not expected for months, yet a master plan for the economic boon that the road is supposed to unleash is already in the works.
It envisions new subdivisions, campgrounds, hiking trails, harbor expansions, and acres of parking lots. According to City Manager Carrie Williams, the road would improve emergency egress and help the town blossom into a real destination, giving visitors a reason to tarry on their way to cruise ships or kayaks.
"Let's face it. We're not Disneyland. There is not a lot of entertainment to come back to," Ms. Williams says.
But environmentalists worry that the 1.4 million annual visits expected to result from the road by 2015 - compared with 91,000 now - would unleash mayhem on this recumbent Prince William Sound port just as the area is recovering from the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. They say the state failed to adequately consider simple expansion of rail service. Instead, if the road goes through, passenger train service would cease altogether.
Despite the 19 formal studies completed between 1972 and 1991, there has never been a referendum on the road, says Whittier Mayor Bill Coumbe. He believes the town's "silent majority" supports the project, and he notes that the city council formally endorsed it years ago. He adds that the state-owned Alaska Railroad has not volunteered any alternative for better access.
Forces outside town are also pushing hard for the road. Out-of-towners have buoyed prices for real estate, including Begich Tower quarters, and extended the now 700-name waiting list for boat slips at the town's harbor.
Lined up in favor of the road are the major cruise lines and other heavy hitters in the tourism industry, the Democratic governor, the Republican-controlled legislature, and most of the state's business establishment.
They argue that there is plenty of room in Prince William Sound to accommodate all the demand. "I always feel bad when the motivation of anybody is being afraid of competition or just plain greed - they don't want to share it with anybody else," says Brad Phillips, owner of an Anchorage-based tour company whose glacier cruises depart from Whittier.
Meanwhile, tourists on a recent railroad shuttle to Whittier - the supposed beneficiaries of the road - were appalled at the project. On their way to catch a ferry in Whittier that would take them across the sound to Valdez, a group of bicyclists gazed at fields of wildflowers, lily-covered ponds, and waterfalls tumbling down glacier-covered mountains.
"When you are in a car, you can't really watch things like glaciers," said Sue Pitts of Jackson, Miss., one of the bicyclists.
In fact, the 35-minute train ride itself is the attraction for some visitors. Count among them a young girl traveling with her family. She explored the picture windows and tight staircases of the double-decker passenger cars. "I love this train. It's like I could live here."