A larger number of options for expanding the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area, a majority of which allow commercial motorized boat tours, is being proposed by the U.S. Forest Service in a project update scheduled for release Tuesday.
The original four alternatives are being supplemented with three additional options based on public input that began in 2020, according to Forest Service officials. Among the elements of the new proposals are revising the design and location of a new welcome center that would supplement the current visitors’ center, and moving parking lot expansions to areas further from the glacier that would be serviced with electric road shuttles.
“Three additional action alternatives were developed for consideration, based on the nearly 400 public comments received during the spring 2022 Draft Environmental Impact Statement comment period.” Erica Keene, a Forest Service spokesperson, wrote in an email Monday. “Commenters on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement requested that additional concepts for facilities be considered.”
The Forest Service, in a preliminary notice released Monday of its intention to issue a Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement, states it does not expect to accept further public comment until the statemet is released next year.
“The SDEIS is expected to be available for public review and comment in the first quarter of 2023, and the final EIS is expected to be issued in the second quarter of 2023,” the draft states. “The comment period for the SDEIS will be for 45 days from the date the Environmental Protection Agency publishes the notice of availability in the Federal Register.”
Maps of the newly proposed alternatives were not available as of Monday, but will be included in the SDEIS, accordimg to Keene.
The “proposed action” known as Alternative 2 in the SDEIS is based on a 30-year future timeline that anticipates 2% annual visitor growth. It includes a dock for alternative fuel or low-emissions commercial motor boats carrying up to 49 passengers to a new visitor area at the face of the Mendenhall Glacier, a new 14,000-square-foot welcome center, an outdoor plaza with amphitheater, new facilities at Mendenhall Campground, extensive expansion and upgrades of trails (some designed for commercial bike and other tours), and numerous other modifications.
The other initial alternatives considered less impactful 15-year, 20-year and no-expansion scenarios with the 20-year option allowing for boats with electric motors that could carry up to 35 passengers. Two of the three new alternatives allow electric vessels carrying up to 49 people.
Allowing motorized vessels on the lake is among the most contentious issues of the proposed upgrades at Juneau’s most visited tourist attaction. Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy waded into the fight last week by filing a lawsuit seeking to seize state control of Mendenhall Lake and Mendenhall River from the federal government which, among other things, would remove restrictions on motorized vessels.
Another notable element of the three new alternatives is they offer different designs and locations for the proposed welcome center than all of the previous expansion options.
“Public comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement suggested locating the Welcome Center further from the lakeshore to reduce environmental and socio-economic impacts, including impacts to scenery and visitor experience,” Keene wrote. “It was suggested instead that the Welcome Center locations should be adjacent to the historic Visitor Center or closer to the entrance of the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area.”
Relocating expanded parking areas was also a frequently voiced comment, according to Keene.
“These concepts were not analyzed in detail in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, but will be analyzed in detail in the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement,” she wrote.
In summary, the new options include:
– Alternative 5, the second most-aggressive option, featuring a revised design and slightly modified location for the welcome center, allowing 49-passenger electronic boats to a modified Remote Glacier Visitor Area, and modifications to parking lot expansions including one at the Skater’s Cabin area rather than within Mendenhall Campground.
– Alternative 6, the least aggressive option, most notably due to no motorized vessels, boat docks or Remote Glacier Visitor Area. It also would include a remote bus dropoff point with electric shuttle service to a relocated welcome center located away from the lakeshore.
– Alternative 7, a mid-impact option, that would allow electric boats to a new Remote Glacier Visitor Area, but place the new welcome center and expanded bus parking away from Mendenhall Lake at the commercial bus lot with electric shuttle service to the Visitor Center.
The new alternatives will get the same level of scrutiny as the original alternatives, according to Keene.
“Much of the analysis will focus on issues related to visitor experience; wildlife and vegetation; and watersheds, wetlands, and aquatic habitat,” she wrote.
• Contact Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com