This conceptual rendering shows what a proposed welcome center near the the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center would look like. The center is part of a proposed overhaul for the popular recreation area. (U.S. Forest Service)

This conceptual rendering shows what a proposed welcome center near the the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center would look like. The center is part of a proposed overhaul for the popular recreation area. (U.S. Forest Service)

Mendenhall overhaul: Residents ask questions about expansion plans during webinar

Residents ask questions about expansion plans during webinar.

Juneau residents might question allowing food sales to tourists unmindful of the bears roaming at the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area, but it may also mean locals can buy a slice of pie as they did when the visitors’ center debuted 60 years ago. And while many residents are resisting the intrusiveness of allowing motorized tour boats to visit the face of the glacier, it may be a better option than a gondola.

A two-hour webinar Thursday meant for questions about a proposed expansion of Juneau’s most-visited attraction sounded a lot like previous public input where oft-heard complaints were again raised, so the panel of U.S. Forest Service hosts repeatedly said efforts are being made to ensure all voices are heard. Many of the answers to questions thus addressed how the desires expressed so far by locals are implemented into the various expansion aspects — but at one point there was also the reminder that 95% of people visiting the glacier area during the most recent non-pandemic year of 2019 were non-locals.

“We are taking all comments seriously,” said Tristan Fluharty, Juneau district ranger for the US. Forest Service, in his introductory remarks. At the same time “we have a lot of competing interests for that area.”

The webinar occurred shortly after the midpoint of a 45-day public comment period on a draft environmental impact statement that evaluates four expansion alternatives at the recreation area, including a no-expansion option. The deadline for comments is April 18 and forest service officials emphasized questions submitted during Thursday’s online session — which was not recorded for subsequent viewing — would not join the nearly 500 comments already submitted and accessible at the project’s web portal, www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=53780.

“We’re not going to be responding to your opinions or feelings about the alternatives,” said Holly Spoth-Torres, head of the project management company Huddle AK, who served as the moderator for the session. “This is the opportunity tonight to ask your questions that will affect the comments you submit officially.”

About alternatives

Among the four proposals, Alternative 2 is the most aggressive expansion as it looks 30 years into the future with an expectation of 2% annual visitor growth. The proposal includes a dock for commercial motor boats that would carry passengers to a new visitor area at the face of the Mendenhall Glacier, extensive expansion and upgrades of trails (some designed for commercial bike and other tours), a new welcome center in addition to the current visitors’ center, paving over the pond currently between the two parking lots near the visitors’ center, and numerous other modifications.

Alternative 3 looks 20 years ahead at the same rate of growth, and Alternative 4 looks 15 years ahead, with generally corresponding reductions in the range of projects — the motorized boats in Alternative 3, for example, would be limited to zero-emissions electronic vessels and Alternative 4 allows no motorized vessels. Alternative 1 is the no-expansion option.

The alternatives envision scenarios in which annual visitor traffic to the recreational area could more than double, but also include a two-month expansion of the historical peak tourism season by setting it between April 1 to Oct. 31, Monique Nelson, a forest service land management planner, told the webinar audience. She said that should mean the perceived impact of increased traffic is lower for non-peak users.

Common concerns

Allowing one or more selected commercial tour operators to use motorized boats to bring visitors to the face of the glacier is among the most controversial expansion proposals, and was consistently raised in the approximately 70 questions submitted during the webinar.

“My understanding is that motorized boats have been roundly opposed in the past, due to the impacts to a natural experience,” Irene Gallion, one of the questioners, wrote. “Can you help me understand what has changed that it is now considered reasonable?”

Reconsideration of motorized boats occurred when surveys asking “what people wanted as an experience” were taken a couple of years ago, said James King, the forest service’s Alaska region director of recreation, land and minerals.

“What we heard was that people wanted an experience at the face of the glacier,” he said. “They don’t necessarily want to be up on the snowfield or the ice field, but the face of the glacier is getting further away.”

Other options to provide such access, including a gondola and road access to the face of the glacier, were considered, but deemed less viable, King said.

Anita Evans, another webinar attendee, asked about the risk of glacier calving and outbursts to boats docking near the face of the glacier. King said the risk appears minimal due to the location of the dock and changes to the glacier itself, but will be further investigated if that option is chosen.

“The proposed location currently for the dock in Alternative 2 is not in direct line of sight of the glacier itself…so it would be designed to accommodate outbursts,” he said. “Also, the face of the glacier is not nearly as high as it used to be, so the height of waves from calving activity is likely to be much less.”

Trails are also a controversial subject in the expansion, especially with the more aggressive proposals that would establish high-use commercial paths at what many locals say comes at the expense of individuals and those with dogs.

Monique Nelson, a forest service land management planner, told the webinar audience many of the expansion plans attempt to enhance the experience for both groups of tourists and individuals, such as a commercial-volume bike trail circling the Dredge Lakes area that still allows those inside the loop to hike in peace. Other loop trails proposed throughout the recreational area serve similar purposes and reduce the perceived traffic level by eliminating there-and-back treks.

“A lot of what we’re trying to do is bring a lot of people to the Mendenhall, then allow them to spread out and enjoy their experience,” she said.

Several aspects about the new welcome center, such as its location and designated purpose, also were frequently raised by those submitting questions. Nelson said it is designed to be a lounge, resting area, warming hut, cafe, information hub about the area’s facilities “and perhaps most importantly access to restrooms.”

“It’s designed to be complimentary to visitors’ center, but it’s also subdued,” she said. “It’s not meant to overwhelm or dominate that historic visitors’ center at all.”

The idea of commercial food sales at the new center seemed questionable to webinar attendee Ryia Waldern.

“What is the rationale behind having a cafe (I know historically there has been one) now?” she wrote. “Are there concerns about enforcement with tourists having easy access to food with the Mendenhall bear population?”

Pete Schneider, a forest service biologist, said during his seven years at the visitors’ center an increasing number of tourists are expressing interest in getting “something to eat or a cup of coffee,” and he expects that trend to continue. But he also noted bears were a “major topic” of planners and a factor in the design of the proposed center.

“A lot of that will be set up in a way where entrances and exits are, and where staff will be positioned,” he said. “Not everything can be resolved with signs, we know that.”

While nearly all of the webinar questions suggested the person was unhappy about the issue raised, Fluharty said it’s important people with positive comments about aspects of the proposals submit them before the deadline.

“We would hate to cut something out of the plan that people will like based on just a few negative comments,” he said.

After the comment period

The comment period will be followed by one where objections can be raised once the forest service publishes a draft decision, Nelson said. But she said both comments submitted now and subsequent objections need to be “substantive and relevant.”

“It can’t be ’I don’t like what you’re presenting’ or ’I don’t like Alternative 2,’” she said.

Only one official comment was submitted online to the Forest Service during the hours following the webinar. Keith Pahlke – who was not among the listed questioners – stated just before midnight Thursday he supports Alternative 3 for most of the proposed changes, but is among the many opposing motorized boats.

“I see the need for improved trails and parking at the visitor center, and better access to dredge pond and moraine ecology trail,” he wrote. “I like some sort of pedestrian bridge across the river. I like the proposed West Glacier trail loop. Anything that can be done to minimize the impact of all the busses is good. I do not support the proposed tour boats. I think the logistics of placing the docks, restrooms, pods, etc. will be daunting, and I don’t think most cruise ship visitors will spend the time to go on a boat to get a little closer. The whole feel of the recreation area will be diminished with power boats.”

The hope is to complete the EIS process by fall, although the timeline may get pushed into winter, with various aspects of implementation including seeking funding sources occurring after a record of decision is reached, Fluharty said.

“Some things may happen quickly, but other things will take years to implement,” he said. “We will have a phased implementation.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at Mark.Sabbatini@juneauempire.com.

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