Pam Kihlmire and Elizabeth Flory talk with Dani Snyder, Tongass National Forest landscape architect, during an open house Thursday night at Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. (Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire)

Pam Kihlmire and Elizabeth Flory talk with Dani Snyder, Tongass National Forest landscape architect, during an open house Thursday night at Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. (Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire)

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

More trails, more visitors, more problems?

Pam Kihlmire and Elizabeth Flory understand why there are plans for a major overhaul of the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area, but that doesn’t mean they’re big fans of everything that’s been proposed.

Kihlmire and Flory were among the dozens of residents who attended a scoping open house Thursday at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. They and many other attendees braved sleet and slush armed with comments and critiques regarding the U.S. Forest Service’s plan that includes additions to trails and trailheads, expand the visitor center, additional buildings, motorized boat crossings of Mendenhall Lake among other proposed changes.

[Master plan calls for major plan]

The open house was held in part to provide a comment submission station while the USFS moves through the National Environmental Policy Act process.

“There’s potential to make it a great wildlife viewing area, but a lot of the proposal seems to put things where the animals are,” Flory said.

She said expanded bus parking at a beaver pond was a prime example.

Kihlmire said the plan seems to explicitly cater to tourists rather than locals, but both she and Flory said they understand the obvious appeal of visiting the area.

Despite howling winds and plenty of slush, dozens of people attended a scoping open house Thursday at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. (Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire)

Despite howling winds and plenty of slush, dozens of people attended a scoping open house Thursday at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. (Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire)

“I’m all for tourism,” Kihlmire said.”Who doesn’t want to see this?”

Almost 700,000 people visited the recreation area in 2017, according to the USFS’ master plan. Mendenhall Glacier is Juneau’s most visited attraction, according to Travel Juneau.

Kihlmire and Flory expressed worry that making it easier for people to walk where animals go to get away from people and adding more paved surfaces around the area will ultimately be detrimental to wildlife.

“It’s like we’re loving this to death,” Flory said.

Others had concerns about what trail expansion and milling crowds might mean for people who pay for a campsite around Mendenhall Lake.

“From what I’ve seen from the trail proposal, it’s going to impact the experience of our campers,” said Rick Daughtery, a USFS campground manager for the Juneau Ranger District, who was wearing a black Tongass National Forest T-shirt. “My concern is for the protection of my campers.”

Rick Daughtery, a U.S.Forest Service campground manager for the Juneau Ranger District fills out a comment card Thursday at Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. (Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire)

Rick Daughtery, a U.S.Forest Service campground manager for the Juneau Ranger District fills out a comment card Thursday at Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. (Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire)

Similarly, Mike Dilger, a 27-year resident of Juneau, said people who pay a fee to camp and people making free use of a trail might have different expectations for how the recreation area should be used.

Dilger compared it to how jarring it would be for someone to do automotive work in the middle of a restaurant. Paid experiences come with a certain set of expectations, he said.

“I just think it’s incompatible use to bring non-fee recreation to a fee area,” Dilger said.

Moving forward

Collecting those sorts of comments was one of the main purposes of the open house, said USFS Juneau District Ranger Brad Orr.

Comments are still being collected for the scoping process and will continue to be accepted until March 19.

“I think people need to take a close look at the proposals and think about how the proposals will affect the recreation experience for themselves and others,” Orr said.

Comments can be submitted by email to comments-alaska-tongass-juneau@usda.gov with “MGRA” in the subject line, faxed to 907-586-8808 and mailed or hand delivered to 8510 Mendenhall Loop Road, Juneau, Ak, 99801. Hand delivery can only be accepted during weekday business hours, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

[DEC commissioner says EPA report might not mean what you think]

Only people who submit comments during the scoping period or future official comment periods will be eligible to object to the project when a draft decision is completed.

Orr emphasized that the proposed plan is not final, and elements of it may be changed or even totally omitted after public comments are collected and considered.

“There are people out there who know things, or who maybe have ideas we haven’t thought of,” Orr said.

The next steps for the project include continued design work, an environmental assessment and a draft decision notice. The environmental assessment will offer further opportunity for public comment.

He said a final decision regarding the project is expected from the forest supervisor by this fall.

“Then, we can begin implementation,” Orr said.

• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or bhohenstatt@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt

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