A crowd of visitors tours the Mendenhall Glacier on Friday. Officials announced Friday limits on commercial tours are being imposed as capacity limits are being rapidly reached, which will impact the second half of the summer tourism season. A plan by the U.S. Forest Service to overhaul the facilities of the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area is now in the final stage, which would replace the existing capacity limits with newly defined management practices. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

A crowd of visitors tours the Mendenhall Glacier on Friday. Officials announced Friday limits on commercial tours are being imposed as capacity limits are being rapidly reached, which will impact the second half of the summer tourism season. A plan by the U.S. Forest Service to overhaul the facilities of the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area is now in the final stage, which would replace the existing capacity limits with newly defined management practices. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Objectors ask for more environmental protections as Mendenhall Glacier plan nears finish

Final OK of multiyear process may occur this fall, replace existing capacity limits with new policy

The plan to overhaul Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area — in the final stages after nearly 3.5 years of citizen review — will lift capacity limits as soon as it goes into effect and gradually puts in place improvements to better accommodate the increase, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

That’s good news for bus tour company owners who have had to turn business away recently because of existing limits, but may not comfort the 17 people who filed objections to the Draft Record of Decision, most of them with questions and concerns about the environmental impact of the changes. Citizen participation has included five public engagements and 909 registered comments, including objections. Concerns about environmental impacts on the receding glacier have dominated the overall discussion.

The objection period, which concluded in late June, is the last stage in the process of finalizing the plan for Juneau’s largest tourist attraction. That plan, first published in March 2022, laid out three different options for proposed changes to Juneau’s largest tourist attraction, and a fourth, which would have left it untouched. Two comment periods followed, leading to the draft decision released May 12.

The draft decision selects Alternative 5, but with a significant modification. It eliminated the most controversial component, which was a proposal that would have put in docks and other infrastructure in Mendenhall Lake and allowed motorized boats.

The final plan includes a new Welcome Center complex on the lakeshore, improvements to the Visitor Center, trailheads on Glacier Spur Road, restoration of Steep Creek, Steep Creek Trail expansion, and multi-use trails throughout the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area. It includes a Lakeshore trail along the south shore of Mendenhall Lake with a pedestrian bridge to the Mendenhall campground, and as many as five public-use cabins. It also provides for additional parking and additional bathrooms.

The Forest Service review panel will be going over each of the objections, looking at solutions, responding to objectors, and then making recommendations, said Tristan Fluharty, the Juneau District Ranger for Tongass National Forest. The panel, which consists of various subject-matter experts, is meeting weekly.

The terrain is well known by now, he said. “We’ve adjusted the plan as we’ve gone along.” Final recommendations will go to Frank Sherman, the forest supervisor, who ultimately decides. The soonest that could happen is late August.

The process is established under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which requires that comments receive responses. Objections can only be filed by those who have earlier filed comments; Many of the objections were about whether the Forest Service had adequately responded to initial comments.

The most frequent comment in the objections was about the placement of the Welcome Center on the lakeshore, which critics say will block the view of the glacier. Some expressed concern about the reduction of wetlands to create new trails and questioned whether motorized vehicles, like e-bikes, will be allowed. There were concerns about the number and size of the cabins proposed. An objection filed by the State of Alaska, which has sued over rights to the park, said that any new construction must remain below the ordinary highwater line.

Ken Post, a retired Forest Service employee, filed a 23-page objection that lists numerous items he said fit in the category of things not addressed under NEPA. His overarching point is that the focus of the plan is on accommodating commercial tourism — without placing reasonable limitations on park use.

Post said changes are needed and stressed he isn’t opposed to improvements.

“But at some point they have to understand that this is a special interest area designated in the forest plan,” he said. “The goal shouldn’t be to constantly expand commercial use without balancing it with protections for the area. And right now, it’s out of balance.”

In addition to the comment periods for the plan, Post has been weighing in on Mendenhall’s future since 2013, before the master plan process began.

His objection, filed June 25, could be viewed as a list of specific things, some relatively simple, that could be adjusted in the plan to better protect the park. The size of the cabins is one example.

The draft decision allows five cabins between 600 and 814 square feet. Post noted that a “standard R10 cabin” was 14 feet by 16 feet, or 224 square feet. “Larger cabins, particularly those with a second floor, are also much harder to heat, which drives the cost up.” The plan, with the specific measure, seems to require larger cabins. Another objector asked why they even needed five cabins to begin with.

Fluharty said the document is purposely broad because of its long-range scope. The time and effort involved in getting it approved makes it necessary to include things that may not actually happen. For example, at this stage there isn’t funding for five cabins.

“We might add one cabin, and see how that goes,” he said. There is a possibility that cabins will be built outside of the park, which could play into decisions about whether to build cabins inside.

Fluharty said the elimination of the docks — part of the scuttled plan to allow motorized boats — removes the main component of the project that would have gone below the highwater line. He said he hadn’t seen plans for the proposed 340-foot pedestrian bridge, the other element that could have some portion under the line.

Fluharty also said he didn’t think any of the trails were open for e-bikes.

“We have a national policy that trails are not used by motorized vehicle use unless specifically authorized,” he said.

But an objection filed by Marina Lindsey, a website consultant, noted language in the draft decision that allows motorized vehicles. It reads, “new transportation special use permits would be required to be fulfilled by electric vehicles. Prohibition of riding wheeled devices such as bikes, electric bikes, skateboards, and roller skates on sidewalks and plazas would only be enforced in the Visitor Center unit and on the Steep Creek boardwalk, from April 1 to October 31 each year.”

“The national policy could change” and the draft decision should be every bit as clear, said Lindsey. She said that e-bikes, which can travel at up to 28 miles an hour, should be banned “so that bikers, hikers, walkers, and dog walkers can use the trails without conflict.” Other parts of the country with higher populations are already seeing problems with motorized vehicles on trails meant for foot traffic.

Lindsey’s larger objection is the plan doesn’t require electric buses, which would go a long way in stemming harmful pollutants, and the draft decision doesn’t address her specific comments about it. Some clarity is also needed given that language about is contained in Alternative 6, while the Forest Service is moving forward with Alternative 5.

The Forest Service addresses the larger issue of buses in the draft decision. “Although the Selected Alternative does not require electric vehicles in permitting commercial service days, aspects of the Selected Alternative incentivize increased electric vehicle traffic. Vehicle chargers will be provided on both sides of the main parking lot and in the commercial overflow lot.” A further incentive for electric vehicles includes giving preference to commercial service providers that use electric vehicles to transport clients.

“The irony is that they are trying to expand visitor access to a glacier that is retreating because of climate change, and contributing to climate change in the process,” Lindsey said. “They can do a lot more to mitigate that impact.”

Fluharty said the process is “a balancing act between those who love (the plan) and those who hate it.”

“We’ve had a very public process and adjusted it as we’ve gone along,” he said. “At some point, we have to just make a decision and move on.”

• Contact Meredith Jordan via the Juneau Empire’s newsroom at editor@juneauempire.com.

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