Skiers cross the frozen lake in front of the Mendenhall Glacier in December. A proposed expansion of the Mendenhall Glacier Recreational Area by the U.S. Forest Service envisions motorized tour boat access in most alternatives, but the three newest ones based on previous public feedback limit vessels to low-impact electronic access or none. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Skiers cross the frozen lake in front of the Mendenhall Glacier in December. A proposed expansion of the Mendenhall Glacier Recreational Area by the U.S. Forest Service envisions motorized tour boat access in most alternatives, but the three newest ones based on previous public feedback limit vessels to low-impact electronic access or none. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

New study released for Mendenhall Glacier area development, old concerns raised

Report features 3 alternatives based on earlier public input; 2 public meetings set for this month.

A huge new evaluation for overhauling the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area is in, and people still largely have the same huge concerns about the impacts of more facilities and visitors.

The various proposed changes to Juneau’s most popular tourist attraction, under public review since 2020, saw the latest chapters released Friday in what the U.S. Forest Service officially classifies as a supplemental draft Environmental Impact Statement. In layman’s terms, the report updates an EIS released last March by attempting to address subsequent public comments.

The lengthy process by Forest Service officials of choosing and implementing a preferred plan essentially involves figuring out the shapes of 15 puzzle pieces — representing various facilities, trails and management strategies — and the picture they’ll form when assembled.

Public comments on the new EIS are being accepted until Feb. 21, with printed copies of the study available for on-site use at the Juneau libraries and the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center the week of Jan. 9. An open house at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center is scheduled from 4-7:30 p.m. Jan. 24 and a webinar is scheduled at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 26.

The first four public comments submitted online immediately after the report’s release all expressed varying degrees of opposition to the higher-development scenarios, favoring either no additional facilities or a couple of the least impactful proposals. There were also concerns about perceived oversights and errant assessments.

“I continue to object to expansion of impacts of tourism in this area,” wrote Carole Bookless, a Juneau resident for the past 14 years and bicycling enthusiast. Also, “I was surprised to read that there were no impacts to minority residents (described as over 50%) or low-income residents in the study area, because the Threadneedle and Kanata Deyi area have exactly that demographic and they would be impacted by traffic and air pollution.”

Furthermore, she asserts the report has no data on how many vehicle/bear collisions occur annually, stating traffic flow should be reduced if it’s a problem, and she favors a tour bus dropoff in a commercial area of the Mendenhall Valley where visitors can catch electric shuttles to the glacier area.

A bear wades through Steep Creek near the Mendenhall Glacier on Aug. 13, 2022. Proposed changes to the area would shift a portion of the trail away from the creek in order to restore salmon habitats and control the stream flow, and expand the trail with a new elevated section with several viewing platforms. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)

A bear wades through Steep Creek near the Mendenhall Glacier on Aug. 13, 2022. Proposed changes to the area would shift a portion of the trail away from the creek in order to restore salmon habitats and control the stream flow, and expand the trail with a new elevated section with several viewing platforms. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)

Three key pages in a 394-page report

For people interested in a quick and easy overview, a three-page section beginning near the end of page 11 of the 394-page document lists seven issues raised during the public comment period and how the alternatives do or don’t address them. Alternatives 5, 6 and 7 in particular were developed based on concerns expressed about the original four alternatives.

In Goldilocks terms; Alternative 5 is the “hot” (most impact) option, Alternative 6 the “cool” (least impact) and Alternative 7 the middle, according to the study.

Those four original options, which remain officially under consideration, including a “no-action” Alternative 1, followed by an Alternative 2 that features the most aggressive development and motorized access of all seven proposals, with Alternatives 3 and 4 each propose fewer impacts than the preceding alternative.

People wanting in-depth details to support particular advocacy arguments, investigate the nuances of specific impacts/areas and make “yes, but…” counterarguments to generalizations will find plenty to ingest in the other 391 pages. The easiest way to get a full overview of the specifics for all project components of all seven alternatives is a series of charts between pages 46 and 57. Similar charts showing the impacts for all alternatives are contained in the individual chapters assessing various issues summarized below such as environmental impacts and visitor experiences.

A map showing Alternative 2, the most aggressive of seven options for expanding the Mendenhall Glacier Recreational Area, highlights key features that would be subject to various levels of development. (U.S. Forest Service)

A map showing Alternative 2, the most aggressive of seven options for expanding the Mendenhall Glacier Recreational Area, highlights key features that would be subject to various levels of development. (U.S. Forest Service)

The “puzzle pieces”

Buildings: the existing visitor center with possible improvements; a new welcome center offering food/retail/restroom facilities, possibly at a remote site where tourists would catch shuttle buses to the glacier area; a new remote glacier visitor area on the north side of the lake near the glacier, with some kind of boats access; and up to five new public use cabins in the campground area.

Trails: Steep Creek would see big changes in all development scenarios by shifting about 1,500 feet further from the water to restore salmon habitats and maintain the stream flow, and it would be extended with an elevated boardwalk with several viewing platforms.

Three new paved trails would be added along Glacier Spur Road, a new trail along the south shore of Mendenhall Lake, the Nugget Falls Trail would be extended to form a loop with an existing informal trail, and a new spur trail would connect the proposed Remote Glacier Visitor Area to the existing West Glacier Trail.

Some alternatives would officially adopt and upgrade several user-created and/or user-proposed mountain bike and hiking trails in the Dredge Lakes area.

Traffic/capacity management: Boat docks near the glacier for motorized vessels with permits are in a majority of alternatives, although the newer options are limited to low emissions/noise electric boats rather than fuel-powered. Expanded vehicle parking is a common feature, although some involve electronic shuttles transferring tour bus passengers from more remote lots. Projecting visitor traffic levels and establishing regulations for various parts of the recreation area will also be evaluated.

The new alternatives

Alternative 5: The second-most aggressive among all alternatives, it refines rather than significantly changes previous proposals by allowing tour buses at the Welcome Center and 49-passenger electronic boats to access a modified Remote Glacier Visitor Area. It responds to concerns about impacts to existing bear corridors, local access and Mendenhall Lake, based on expected visitor traffic during the next 30 years.

Alternative 6: Remote bus dropoff with electronic shuttles to a welcome center set in the rocks away from the lakeshore adjacent to the visitor center, with no motorized vessels, boat docks or remote glacier visitor area. It responds to concerns in Alternative 5, plus existing scenic integrity and viewsheds and air quality, according to the study.

Alternative 7: Puts a remote welcome center and tour bus area near the commercial parking lot and snow storage area, with electronic shuttle service to the visitor center and allows electric boats to a new remote glacier visitor area. It responds to concerns in Alternative 5, plus existing scenic integrity and viewsheds, according to the study.

The issues and how alternatives affect them

Wildlife and vegetation

Major concerns include adversely affecting wildlife (especially bears and migratory birds), including increased interaction with humans, and altering habitats in various ways including introducing invasive species and reducing diversity by damaging plants near the glacier.

All three new alternatives “would have moderate effects on bears due to habitat fragmentation and adverse human bear interactions,” while Alternatives 5 and 7 would have minor effects on migratory birds and other wildlife that didn’t affect their population levels, according to the draft statement. All of the no-action alternatives would have moderate invasive species impacts due to the risk of spread during construction, and the three new alternatives would have a minor impact on plants near the glacier.

Recreation and visitor experience

More encounters between groups, along with visual and noise impacts, were primary concerns cited by USFS.

Alternatives 5 and 7 would moderately increase social encounters in multiple locations, with a mild impact in Alternative 6 due to fewer additional facilities away from the visitor center. Alternative 5 would have a major effect on scenic areas due to new infrastructure, while Alternatives 6 and 7 would minor effects due to the Welcome Center’s placement out of the way of viewsheds.

Alternative 5 would have minor noise effects due to increased bus traffic that are the largest source, while Alternatives 6 and 7 would have negligible effects by removing buses from the visitor center. Electronic boats in all alternatives are also seen as having negligible noise impacts.

Watersheds, wetlands and aquatic habitat

Concerns were expressed about a wide range of development including parking lot expansion, trail expansion and construction, bridge construction, Steep Creek realignment and restoration, and the addition of docks on Mendenhall Lake.

All three new alternatives are seen as having moderate impacts — both temporary during construction and permanent — on wetlands and aquatic habitat. Minor effects for all three on water quality is expected due to the creation of hard surfaces near streams and proposed boat operations.

Heritage resources

Developments impacting the “historic” Visitor Center and trails, plus the acknowledgement the glacier’s traditional cultural importance to Alaska Natives were cited as key concerns. Forest Service officials are developing agreements with official historic preservation agencies and tribal entities to assess and mitigate impacts associated with all alternatives.

Air quality

Concerns are more buses and allowing motorized boats may contribute to periods of poor air quality in the Mendenhall Valley. The EIS asserts Alternatives 5 and 7 would have a minor effect on air quality due to additional motorized vehicles, while Alternative 6 would have a negligible impact because additional transportation service days would be required to be fulfilled by electric buses.

Climate change and greenhouse gas emissions

Projected changes in climate and continued retreat of the Mendenhall Glacier, which could be hastened by more tour buses and allowing gas-powered boats on the lake, according to the EIS. Alternative 6 would generate the least amount of additional emissions since few motorized vehicles would be added to the Visitor Center parking area and there would be no motorized boats on the lake.

Socioeconomics and environmental justice

Public concerns included a greater degree of impacts on minority and low-income populations, harming local traffic flows and resident quality of life, and being at odds with the Forest Service’s mission “to help people share and enjoy the forest” due to crowded conditions and limited infrastructure.

The EIS projects negligible effects on minority or low-income populations since they don’t have disproportionately high ratios in the study area, according to the study. Alternatives 5 and 6 are seen as having a moderate effect on traffic, while Alternative 7 would have a major impact due to limited staging areas for buses. Economically, Alternatives 5 and 7 are seen as having moderate beneficial effects and Alternative 6 minor ones.

Among the initial comments was an assessment of proposed trail modifications by Bjorn Wolter, an educational researcher for the state since 2011.

“I do NOT think that commercial activity should be allowed on/from the proposed Lakeside Trail,” he wrote. “I am also not in favor reducing the trails around Dredge Lakes, but am 100% in favor of improving those trails — it can get quite confusing back there. I also think it would be good to improve the trail to Nugget Creek off the East Loop Trail. Right now it is awful!”

Wolter expressed mixed feelings about the proposed remote glacier viewing area, stating while it’s generally a good idea, it shouldn’t be commercialized since it’s being built with public funds. He, like many past commenters, is also “absolutely am against any motorized boat use on the lake.”

• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

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