By 2050, the picture windows at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center will depict a much different view. Scientists expect the glacier will have receded out of sight, the area’s icon vanished.
But long before, the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area will change to accommodate its new aspect. Plans for an overhaul of the crowded, popular destination are nearly final.
In a presentation to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, U.S. Forest Service Juneau District Ranger Brad Orr said the agency is putting the “finishing touches” on plans to build new facilities and trails.
After a series of seven public workshops focused priorities, design firm Corvus Design is polishing the final product.
It includes plans for a new welcoming center at the end of Glacier Spur Road, a smaller, mobile interpretive center next to the glacier itself and docks for a commercial boat service to ferry visitors next to Mendenhall’s shining blue front. The USFS plans to submit its designs to National Environmental Policy Act review sometime in the next couple of months, Orr said.
One of the main things visitors ask USFS guides at the glacier is how they get up close and personal with the fast-melting ice. The boat service and mobile visitor center will fulfill that priority.
“This will meet that need to ‘touch the ice,’” Orr said.
The USFS hopes the upgrades will spread visitors, Orr said. New trails, multiple visitor centers, a larger theater and additional restrooms were added to the design to disperse the crowds, which are now so large the USFS said it’s damaging visitors’ enjoyment.
A new visitor center next to where bus passengers depart will be used primarily to take care of visitor needs like food, restrooms and directions. The existing visitor center would take on the role as the area’s primary place for visitors to learn about the area’s wildlife and geology.
The new visitor center will “become kind of the public service center,” while the existing Visitor Center would become “more the museum,” Orr said.
The new additions help accommodate the increasing number of people who want to visit the glacier, Orr said. About one of every three people who come to Alaska visit the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area. Forecasts call for 6 percent increase in visitors next year, with larger cruise ships delivering more people to Juneau during the busy summer season, Orr said.
Commercial guide days are capped at a little over 500,000 a year, and though they haven’t yet used all of those days, Orr said they’ve come close, and expect to have to have to turn visitors away any year now.
A new loop trail next to the shore on the south side of Mendenhall Lake is in the works to offer another hiking option. The popular Nugget Falls Trail is already the most traversed in the Tongass National Forest, Orr said, so the agency would like to offer more trails to thin crowds.
Full plans can be found at http://mgra-mgvc.us/. The public can comment at that website and at future public meetings on the design, as well as through the formal NEPA review process when the designs make it to that stage.
• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinGullufsen.