The U.S. Forest Service is set to release refined versions of plans to overhaul the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area, the agency recently announced. The move is the latest in a years-long process that’s involved multiple public meetings — both in-person before the pandemic and virtual more recently — and generated thousands of public comments.
The Forest Service announced last Friday it is working on a supplemental draft environmental impact statement that includes three new action alternatives for the project.
The announcement is a sign the Forest Service is “really listening,” said John Neary, the former director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. Neary retired from the position in 2019 after seven years and has been a public critic of some facets of proposed plans.
Past overhaul options for Juneau’s most-visited site have included renovations to the visitor center, trail improvements, expansions for bus parking, a welcoming center, motorized boats to cross Mendenhall Lake and a mobile structure near the receding face of the glacier among other changes.
The upcoming options have changed from the last round of proposed alternatives released for public comment this spring, and do not include the past alternative that allowed for no expansion as an option, according to the Forest Service. The past draft of the environmental impacts spurred nearly 400 comments from the public in just a 45-day public comment period. Many comments came from locals who opposed the potential expansions. The release stated the Forest Service took the public’s input and have considered them as it draft the new alternatives.
According to the Forest Service update, the next set of alternatives will be released this fall.
The first alternative considers refining many of the spring project proposals presented such as including a welcome center design. The second alternative considers placing the welcome center on the rocks adjacent to the historic visitor center. The third alternative considers a welcome center and parking area that is located near the commercial bus lot and snow storage area at the recreation area.
Neary said he thinks the recent update includes some “really good things” and is a sign that the Forest Service is listening to the community and accommodating to them.
“Juneau residents —Don’t give up. The Forest Service is showing responsiveness so keep pushing,” he said.
Neary, who also wrote an opinion piece on the Forest Service’s proposal in January 2021, said from the update’s brief explanation of what the Forest Service is working on, the design he would most like to see chosen is the third alternative that considers a welcome center and parking area that is located near the commercial bus lot and snow storage area at the recreation area. He said a more remote parking lot and building center would benefit traffic flow and accommodate the influx of people that are expected to visit the Glacier in the future. Neary said he doesn’t necessarily agree with everything the Forest Service has planned in all alternatives, and he said from his experience at the park, an update to the recreation area’s infrastructure is needed.
He said doing nothing is just not an option at this point — especially given the projected future of the park’s popularity among visitors. During the most recent nonpandemic year of 2019, 95% of people visiting the glacier area were nonlocals, and visitation to Juneau is expected to grow 2-4% annually with the potential for periods of much higher growth according to a Forest Service paper on a Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area master plan written in 2019.
“In 2019, I was pushing forward to update the infrastructure because it was so out of date,” he said. “You’d see women having to spend 30 minutes waiting in line just to use the bathroom while they only have an hour at the park — there’s a need to improve flow and improve the experience.”
He said there are two competing goals at play. One where the Forest Service wants to do its best to accommodate more people coming to the park, and another where members of the public would rather leave things as they are. He said it’s impossible to satisfy both needs, and said he doesn’t see a design that will make everyone happy or find a consensus on what people really want. But, from his experience working with the Forest Service for 37 years, he said it’s rare that the Forest Service goes through a lot of effort like they did with the earlier design, and then decides to take a step back. He said it shows a sign that the Forest Service is listening, and people should continue to stay engaged with the topic.
Though he doesn’t know what each alternative specifically entails, he hopes that people stay engaged and fight for the alternative they deem to be in the best interest of the park and Juneau.
Laurie Craig, a Juneau resident for the past 50 years and a retired Mendenhall Glacier park ranger who spent 14 years working at the park, said she sees the news release as a step forward for the recreation area, and said it’s evident that the Forest service took a lot of the comments into consideration, and she is “hopeful” for the future of the visitor’s center.
“I think the forest service made a very good decision to examine alternatives,” she said. “It shows that the forest service was listening to what the public had to say.”
Craig has been vocal in Juneau about the proposed expansions and wrote an opinion piece in January 2021 in which she asked for better visual explanations of the initial expansion plans proposed by the Forest Service. She said it’s important for the expansion to be thoroughly thought out to fit the combined needs of the local community, visitors and the wildlife surrounding the area.
From her experience working at the Mendenhall Glacier and being a Juneau resident, she said the glacier is extremely loved and cared for by the Juneau community, and with climate change already changing the landscape and glacier, it’s important to find a way to make the recreation area accessible for people to experience it even as it continues to change. Since 2007, the glacier has retreated more than 1,830 feet — the equivalent to about one-third of a mile according to Extreme Ice Survey and will continue to shrink future as climate change grows to become more of a threat.
“Everything has changed, this is one the most incredible examples of what climate change can do,” she said.
Jim Sepel, an accredited marine surveyor and president of Sepel & Son Marine Surveying Inc., said he is “underwhelmed” by the update and said he thinks there should be no expansion regardless of the plans the Forest Service release for public comment this fall. He said the real issue is that the visitor center is welcoming too many visitors and he thinks it should limit the number of tourists and buses that are allowed to visit the park.
“It’s industrial tourism and it’s wrong,” he said. “Right now, there are too many buses, too many tourists who come here then leave. How many tourists are enough? They can’t manage it.”
Sepel wrote an opinion piece in May 2022 about the Forest Service’s Environmental Impact Statement released in the spring. He said he looks forward to seeing what the new supplemental draft will fully include, but he said any expansion is not going to solve any problems.
• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at email@example.com or at (651)-528-1807. Follow her on Twitter at @clariselarson.