The parking lots at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center were packed on Feb. 13, 2021, and plans to improve the facilities include expanding the parking lot. Those plans were criticized by residents for the impacts to the environment and a draft environmental impact statement is expected later this summer. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

The parking lots at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center were packed on Feb. 13, 2021, and plans to improve the facilities include expanding the parking lot. Those plans were criticized by residents for the impacts to the environment and a draft environmental impact statement is expected later this summer. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Federal funds go toward more analysis for visitor center area plan

Federal relief funds going to additional analysis

Federal stimulus funding is going to additional impact analysis for a proposed overhaul to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center and a draft environmental impact statement is expected later this summer.

Funding from the Great American Outdoors Act recently passed by Congress was approved for further impact analysis of proposed changes to the parking areas at the glacier found in the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Facility Improvements plan, according to the center’s director Barb Miranda. Further analysis is meant to address some of the concerns raised in public comments on the project, she said.

“It’s just for planning and analysis,” Miranda said of the funds. “It doesn’t cover implementation.”

A draft EIS is expected in late August or early fall, Miranda said, its release will trigger a 45-day public comment period. Last year the Trump administration rolled back certain provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act requiring environmental review, but Miranda said additional analysis was being done due to the concerns raised in the public comments.

“We got nearly 200 comments during the scoping period that ended in January,” Miranda said. “We’re just doing more in-depth analysis of the impacts.”

Residents raised a number of concerns with the extensive improvement plan. The plan would expand various aspects of the visitor center area including building additional raised walkways and viewing platforms and a dock with boats to cross the lake. The plan also calls for an expansion of parking facilities to accommodate large numbers of tour buses.

Stakeholders voiced displeasure with elements of the proposal, including possibly paving over a pond currently between two parking lots to create one, large lot. That pond contains fish habitats, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists. In public comment submitted to the project website, ADFG regional supervisor Kate Kanouse said one of the ponds to be filled in under the proposal contains rearing habitat for juvenile coho salmon.

[‘It’s like we’re loving this to death’: Commenters say Mendenhall plan has drawbacks]

“If this water body is filled as currently proposed, we will work with USFS biologists to develop a fish habitat mitigation strategy and remove fish prior to in-water work,” Kanouse said in the comments, which provided extensive data on fish habitats in the area.

The proposal to have motorized boats crossing Mendenhall Lake to bring visitors to the receding glacier face also raised concern among residents, as did the plan’s lack of emphasis on renewable energy. Critics of the parking plan included former Mendenhall Visitor Center Director John Neary and former lead naturalist Laurie Craig.

The GAOA includes $285 million for improvements to National Forest and grassland infrastructure, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The act provides funding through the 2025 Fiscal Year, USDA said, and in the first year the Alaska Region will receive $12.3 million in funding for maintenance backlogs.

The U.S. Forest Service created an interactive map of projects with funding for the Alaska region, projects in Juneau include the Mendenhall Glacier Master Plan Implementation-Parking Planning Phase and deferred maintenance at the visitor center. Miranda said a design contract had been put out for repairs to the visitor center roof and bags of gravel were airlifted by helicopter to spots along the East and West Glacier Trails for trail repair.

According to Miranda, GAOA funds can’t yet be used to fund construction for improvement projects at the visitor center because none of those plans have been approved. Miranda said once plans are approved the Forest Service will begin looking for funding the project in phases.

“The process is working,” she said.

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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