A plan to overhaul the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area no longer includes a proposal to operate motor boats on Mendenhall Lake, according to a report published Friday by the U.S. Forest Service.
The possibility of motorized boats transporting visitors across the lake to the receding glacier’s face has long been one of the most criticized elements of the plan to make sizable changes to Juneau’s most-visited destination, with comments against the boats focusing on risks posed to both the environment and passengers.
The plan also omits the boats’ proposed destination, a remote mobile visitor area that could move as Mendenhall Glacier recedes. By 2050, the Mendenhall Glacier is expected to be out of view from the southeast corner of the lake.
“The preferred alternative includes changes intended to accommodate the needs and desires of the local community, as well as the hundreds of thousands of visitors we receive every year,” said Tongass National Forest Supervisor Frank Sherman in a Friday morning statement. “We collected hundreds of comments over five different public engagements during this process, and those comments influenced my decision.”
In the report, a set of changes known collectively as Alternative 5, which were among three plans the Forest Service released in January based on public response to previous plans, are identified as being closest to the Forest Service’s preferred plan of action. But while Alternative 5 was the highest-impact option of the three newer alternatives, the new preferred options omit some of those impacts such as allowing 49-passenger electronic boats to access the remote visitor area.
The preferred alternative, “provides the most balanced approach to meet the project’s purpose and need, and to responsibly serve the diverse user groups,” Frank Sherman, forest supervisor for the Tongass National Forest, wrote in the Draft Record of Decision published along with the final Environmental Impact Statement on Friday.
“While the alternatives that included motorized boats tours and the Remote Glacier Visitor Area would have enhanced the experience of those visitors who made use of these opportunities, I decided to not include them in the Selected Alternative primarily in response to concerns over changing the character of the MGRA, disrupting wildlife, and affecting water quality,” he wrote.
The plan increases visitor capacity to an expected 999,000 annually 30 years from now, compared to the current 544,890. It also extends the defined peak use period to 214 days, from April 1 to Oct. 31, reflecting a longer cruise ship season.
“My selection of the higher capacity and commercial use allocations will allow for more management flexibility than other alternatives,” Sherman wrote. “For example, visitation may increase at a rate faster than 2% due to increased cruise ship sailings to Juneau, increased capacity of cruise ships arriving in Juneau, a higher proportion of cruise ship passengers choosing to visit the MGRA, or an increase in independent travelers.
“My decision includes the appropriate infrastructure to accommodate this amount of use and positions the Forest Service to be more responsive to visitor demand, if components of the adaptive management plan are met.”
But Sherman stated he also placed a high priority on high-use areas that are popular among Juneau residents, such as trail and access proposals for the West Glacier and Dredge Lakes areas.
“Proposed development in the West Glacier Unit is primarily focused on local use, including trail development and improvement, additional amenities in the campground, and increased parking availability,” he wrote. “The Lakeshore Trail and pedestrian bridge connect the West Glacier Unit and Dredge Lakes Unit which provides numerous new connections to existing and new trails to expand different types of recreation opportunities.”
The preferred option creates a significantly different setting for people arriving at the recreation area, with the two existing parking lots combined into a single larger parking area with separation between private and commercial vehicles.
Also, the visitor center will be supplemented by a new Welcome Center complex composed of two buildings totalling 16,000 square feet and a network of connecting walkways intended to serve a multitude of high-volume purposes.
“The Welcome Center itself will enhance and improve the recreational experience by providing wayfinding, tour gathering points, restrooms, food service, visitor lounge/event space, and protection from inclement weather,” Sherman wrote. “Centrally-located Forest Service personnel, informational signage, and restrooms will improve the overall visitor experience by limiting confusion and decreasing the time spent waiting for these services.”
Also, he noted, ”the building will help disperse visitors, improving crowded conditions in the Visitor Center Unit.” In addition, renovations will be made to the visitor center including increasing interior space, adding a covered area outside the main upper doors and installing a snowmelt system for the outside staircase among other repairs and upgrades.
Objections to the draft decision can be filed within 45 days, but only for people who have previously commented on the project, according to a cover letter by Sherman included in the packet of documents.
“Issues raised in objections must be based on previously submitted timely, specific written comments regarding the proposed project unless the issue is based on new information arising after the designated comment opportunities,” he wrote.
Other aspects of the preferred alternative include:
— Reconfiguration of the existing “bus overflow” lot, including paving two-thirds of the lot to provide commercial parking and staged overflow parking.
— A 260-foot-long crescent-shaped pedestrian bridge that would overlook Kettle Pond and connect the Welcome Center to the Visitor Center’s access walkway.
— An 5,000-square-foot interpretative plaza north of the Visitor Center that would see an existing underground storage area decommissioned and replaced by a 50-person amphitheater.
— A network of trails between 6 and 14 feet wide that would include wayfinding and interpretive signs throughout the planned welcome center complex.
— Lengthening the popular Photo Point Trail to loop back to the Welcome Center plaza, which would eliminate the trail’s existing intersection with Nugget Falls Trail.
— Three new paced trailheads along Glacier Spur Road with access to Dredge Lakes, Crystal Lake and Powerline trails.
— A new 2.6-mile-long trail along the south shore of Mendenhall Lake that would link to other trails to become part of a recreational loop around Dredge Lakes. A 340-foot-long, 14-foot-wide pedestrian bridge would be constructed across the Mendenhall River near the outlet of the lake.
— Campground changes that would allow access to the west end of the new Lakeshore Trail, expand parking to accommodate another 46 vehicles, extend a trail to connect to the expanded parking area across from Skater’s Cabin and a new trail for winter access to separate walkers from Nordic skiers. About six existing campsites would be removed to accommodate a pedestrian bridge and trails.
— Extension and realignments to connect existing trails to create a recreational loop around Dredge Lakes.
— Up to five new public use cabins for year-round use that would include a wood stove, bed platforms, a small counter and table.
— Expansion of Nugget Falls Trail that would connect the existing trail to the user-created trail along the lakeshore to form a loop. The extension would be about 2,400 feet long and 10 feet wide.
— Realigning, regrading and restoring 1,500 feet of Steep Creek to “provide improved salmon habitat.” This change would add space between the proposed parking lot and the creek and develop a floodplain for the creek.
— Enlargement of Backside Pond west of Glacier Spur Road.
— Replacement of culverts under Glacier Spur Road with a bottomless arch culvert to improve wildlife passage.
— Expansion of Steep Creek Trail to create a trail network that would start at the proposed Lakeshore Trail, connect to the Welcome Center via a boardwalk trail, continue up the creek and end at Glacier Spur Road. Spur trails and a pedestrian crosswalk over Glacier Spur Road connecting to the Dike Trail would be part of this plan.
— About 6.6 miles of user-created trails would be added to a network of multi-use trails at Dredge Lakes. This would entail “minimal” vegetation removal, minor widening, drainage improvements and replacement of existing bridges.
— Changes to the West Glacier trail that would upgrade, realign and connect the user-created trail from West Glacier Trail to the glacier to create a loop option and allow for safer access by foot.
— A new 1.7-mile-long trail to create multi-use West Glacier High and Low loop trails that would be groomed in the winter as conditions allow.
— Extending the closing time for recreation areas from 10 p.m. to midnight.
— A new interpretive plan that includes updated educational exhibits, signage, benches, shelters and discovery nodes.
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at Mark.Sabbatini@juneauempire.com. Ben Hohenstatt contributed reporting to this article.