The sun partially sines on the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center as it sets Monday evening. Tuesday is the last day for the public to submit comments to the U.S. Forest Service on proposed changes to the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

The sun partially sines on the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center as it sets Monday evening. Tuesday is the last day for the public to submit comments to the U.S. Forest Service on proposed changes to the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Mendenhall Glacier area comment period closing soon

The U.S. Forest Service is seeking public input on seven plans that vary in impact on the area.

The window of opportunity to comment on seven possible plans for Juneau’s most-visited site is closing fast.

Tuesday marks the cut-off for the public to submit comments to the U.S. Forest Service on proposed changes to the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area, which has been a hot-button topic since plans were first discussed years ago and has spurred hundreds of comments for and against the proposed alternatives.

Since opening the comment period in early January, more than 100 comments have been sent regarding the seven alternatives. The alternatives are summarized below:

— Alternative 1 – No Action: This option would continue the area’s current operation and maintenance activities.

— Alternative 2: This alternative was developed to update infrastructure and create recreation opportunities that can accommodate projected future visitor use while protecting the unique characteristics and outstanding beauty of the area, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

— Alternative 3: Alternative 3 was developed in response to the issues identified during public scoping related to wildlife and wildlife habitat, visitor experiences, and aquatic resources, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

— Alternative 4: Alternative 4 was developed to respond to public comments desiring an alternative that focuses development mainly within the already concentrated area near the visitor center rather than spread throughout the Mendenhall Glacier Recreational Area, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

— Alternative 5: Alternative 5 was developed in response to concerns about impacts on existing bear corridors, local access, and Mendenhall Lake. Facilities and infrastructure development are based on expected visitation over the next 30 years, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

— Alternative 6: Alternative 6 was developed in response to concerns about impacts on existing bear corridors, local access, existing scenic integrity and viewsheds, Mendenhall Lake, and air quality. This alternative proposes a shuttle service from the commercial overflow parking lot to access the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, proposed welcome center, and glacier and lake views, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

— Alternative 7: Alternative 7 was developed to analyze a welcome center placed in a remote location and access to the Visitor Center and lake and glacier views via a shuttle service in response to concerns about impacts to existing bear corridors, local access, existing scenic integrity and viewsheds, and Mendenhall Lake, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

A snowman sits on Mendenhall Lake as the sun sets over the glacier Monday evening. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

A snowman sits on Mendenhall Lake as the sun sets over the glacier Monday evening. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

While most comments were submitted by individuals, some were sent in by organizations, including Royal Caribbean whose destination development director, Preston Canahan, who wrote a letter on behalf of the company and expressed support for the U.S. Forest Service’s “proposed modernization project” but did not point toward a specific alternative it would prefer.

Juneau Audubon Society’s director of conservation Winston Smith wrote a letter on behalf of the society and expressed disapproval of the proposed alternatives and stated its preference for the no-action alternative.

The letter cited concerns that any of the proposed development would jeopardize the long-term sustainability of the wildlife species that inhabit the area and specifically expressed concerns about the proposed food services, the glacier access development for motorized watercraft, light pollution and new trail development.

The group asked the U.S. Forest Service to consider its concerns and consider removing multiple components of the project.

“Although management of seabird and shorebird nesting areas has been discussed in the EIS (environmental impact statement), ambitious development would undoubtedly impact habitat quality,” he stated. “Monitoring and “adaptive management” will not bring back birds if they have been ousted from their nesting areas, or the surrounding habitat no longer provides needed resources.”

A letter written by Rebecca Chu, chief of policy and environmental review branch for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, stated that the EPA did not identify significant environmental concerns, but still provided recommendations to improve the project’s ability to adapt to climate change along with recommending actions to create green infrastructure and climate resiliency.

The letter outlined a few recommendations and clarifications like incorporating green infrastructure systems where possible throughout the build, encouraging the use of electric vehicles and minimizing vehicle idling near dense visitor areas to lessen air quality impacts and recommending an emergency response plan to address major flooding incidents associated with glacial lake outburst

Michael Hekkers, a glaciologist, lead naturalist guide for Gastineau Guiding and board member of the Juneau Nordic Ski Club, wrote as an individual welcoming the addition of Alternative 5, 6 and 7 and emphasized the importance that the alternatives accommodate skiers and the demands of the Nordic skiing community.

Some of his recommendations included that the U.S. Forest Service employ a “professional Nordic ski trail architect” to assist with the design of the various trails that are intended for Nordic skiing and other non-motorized winter use and said the area is a crucial element for the Juneau Nordic Ski Club’ vision of having a 50 km ski race in the Mendenhall-Montana-Spaulding area.

He also suggested the U.S. Forest Service work with the City and Borough of Juneau to develop a light rail spanning from the downtown cruise ship docks directly to the center as opposed to a shuttle that takes visitors to the visitor center from a staging area which is included in some of the proposals. Hekkers stated a light rail would further reduce the impact of heavy traffic to the area.

Deedie Sorensen, Juneau School District board of education president, wrote as an individual expressing opposition to the development of the west side of Mendenhall Lake and the proposed use of motorized boats.

“The idea of motorized boats on the lake is appalling,” she said.

Sorensen said the visitor experience should be focused on the aspects of nature and said any construction beyond the existing visitor center would be destructive and a distraction to the experience.

“Rather than trying to turn the glacier into a fake Disney attraction, it should be the tourist destination with the smallest carbon footprint,” she said.

• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at clarise.larson@juneauempire.com or (651)-528-1807. Follow her on Twitter at @clariselarson.

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