Two visitors walk on the Photo Point Trail footbridge at the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area on Aug. 27, 2023. (Photo by Laurie Craig)

Two visitors walk on the Photo Point Trail footbridge at the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area on Aug. 27, 2023. (Photo by Laurie Craig)

My Turn: Final Mendenhall Glacier redevelopment plan shows together we can create better outcomes

The Final Record of Decision announced on Dec. 14, 2023, by the U.S. Forest Service regarding changes at Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area (MGRA) illustrates something many skeptics assumed could not occur: a federal government agency listening to the suggestions and concerns of local citizens.

After years of meetings and submitting more than 500 written comments on original master plan ideas, Juneauites gave up participating, thinking their repeat appearances were for nought. Surprisingly, the opposite is true. Forest Service officials changed the plans.

Here are some recent highlights:

First, in May 2023 agency decision makers issued a reversal when they elected to drop proposed motorized boats on Mendenhall Lake. That resulted from significant public opposition and practical reality.

Next, on Aug. 1, 2023, specific problems were discussed in a group meeting with formal objectors who had appealed the draft decision. As an objector, I was among the dozen citizens participating in the discussions. The results were sent to us on Sept. 11, but not made public for three months until they were signed in mid-December.

One of the most controversial issues was the siting of a large new Welcome Center in the primary vista for people arriving at the glacier. Due to citizen comments and new ideas, the final decision relocates that major view-blocking structure back a few hundred yards to the existing bus overflow parking lot. I see this as a surprising and favorable change. The familiar pavilion will remain intact instead of being torn down for a building the size of the Mendenhall Valley Public Library with a flying bridge over the kettle pond (an important geological glacial feature).

This new Welcome Center location also decongests the front area where currently motor coaches load and unload their passengers. When the new plan is enacted this loud, exhaust-producing activity will occur near the new Welcome Center, leaving the impressive natural view open to all as a quieter, fresher experience. An electric circulating shuttle bus service is planned to move guests from the new Welcome Center to the front area if they prefer transportation. The Zigzag pond will not be destroyed as initially proposed, but will be narrowed to accommodate better pedestrian access and parking. Much of the close-in parking will be dedicated to private vehicles, thus giving locals improved access year-round.

The classic visitor center will receive some upgrades but essentially continue as we know it with the grand observatory windows presenting the breathtaking view. It will remain open year-round with limited winter hours and longer daily hours in summer. Exhibits and the theater will be updated and more appropriate interpretive displays will be created both as hands-on activities and with improved Alaska Native recognition.

Concerns about sensitive habitat for salmon, bears, and other wildlife at the junction of Steep Creek and Mendenhall Lake caused the Forest Service to eliminate an encircling trail surrounding the creek mouth. In its place an open “horseshoe-shaped” trail is proposed that protects areas essential to the key species visitors and locals come to see.

The agency responded to Nordic skiers’ interests by proposing a new groomable ski trail with parking at the Crystal Lake Trailhead off Glacier Spur Road.

Reducing overcrowding on popular Nugget Falls and Photo Point Trails is an essential goal for many residents, guests and tour operators. Those trails are likely to become loop trails giving better access and vistas.

Not everything is perfect. The challenge of balancing reasonable tourism with locals’ quality of life and protecting the natural environment still exists. Furthermore, changes will not be immediate. Expect overcrowding until facilities are funded and built.

Our work is not done yet. Continued vigilance on the part of the public remains our task. But the greater message is that informed and concerned people can make a positive difference in the choices government makes for public lands. That’s not always true, but when it happens it is important to acknowledge that together we can create better outcomes.

• Laurie Craig is a retired U.S. Forest Service park ranger serving at Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center from 2004-2018. As a longtime Juneau resident she has been an advocate for many public issues. She is an artist and writer.

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