This photo shows the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)

This photo shows the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)

Opinion: Deja vu for the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area

Three new alternatives don’t go far enough.

  • By Ken Post
  • Wednesday, February 1, 2023 7:23pm
  • Opinion

The Forest Service released a supplemental draft EIS adding three new alternatives to respond to public comments received on the draft EIS (DEIS) for developing the MGRA. That’s because it received hundreds of comments about its first four alternatives. The majority of the letters were not in favor of many of the projects. Those projects included:

— Motorized boats traveling to the remote northwest corner of the lake (the ice caves area), allowing “exponential” visitor use up to 214,000 people;

— Developing a new 14-foot-wide, paved Lakeshore Trail wide enough to accommodate emergency vehicles along the south side of the lake for 32,000 tourists;

— Permitting another 23,000 tourists into a new Dredge Lake Outer Loop trail;

— A bridge over the Mendenhall River;

— Turning the Nugget Falls Trail into a loop so thousands of visitors will be visible walking along the lakeshore;

— Building a lakeside welcome center altering the iconic view of the glacier.

How are some of these changes going to occur? The Forest Service will “rezone” units of the MGRA for more use. For example, the Visitor Center Unit would extend across the lake, to the glacier’s face, and along the southern shoreline.

Here are a few potential effects:

— “Recreational experiences and easier access for tourists to more areas of the MGRA could interrupt the solitude and quiet residents have come to expect in some places such as the Dredge Lakes and West Glacier Units. The Lakeshore Trail in particular would be expected to have an impact on walking and bird watching activities for which the area along the shoreline of the lake has become known.” The Juneau Audubon Society said the proposed new Lakeshore Trail is “flawed” and should “not be included in the final plan.”

— “Motorized and non-motorized boat tours, and guided hikes would deliver many more people to the face of the glacier than current conditions and combined with proposed infrastructure (Remote Glacier Visitor Area) would substantially increase the number of social encounters in this area.”

So, what’s new in the SDEIS? While the three new alternatives attempt to address the public’s concerns, they don’t go far enough and continue to create unacceptable impacts. For example, two of the three new alternatives continue to include motorized boats on the lake although they’ll be electric. Boats will run up to 10 hours per day shuttling hundreds of thousands of tourists to the new Remote Visitor Center Area across the lake where a floating barge with toilets will be one of the features.

Boating on the lake has other impacts; the round trip by boat and 30 minutes exploring the base of the glacier would double the time visitors need in the MGRA (4 hours vs. 2-plus hours). More visitors staying longer. With limited time in port, how will downtown businesses be affected by tourists having 2 hours less to shop and eat?

And the view? “Alternative 5 would have a major effect on scenic resources.”

What’s driving this project? The 2021 Market Demand and Economic Analysis study reports “Guest satisfaction among Juneau visitors is generally high, particularly for tours that include the MGRA. Tour operators report no noticeable change in guest satisfaction with their experience as the glacier recedes. Most visitors are seeing the MGRA for the first time and have no comparison.” This is exactly the point raised by Rich Moniak’s recent My Turn: “While the Forest Service ignores the high probability that if they don’t do the project, tourists who have never been here before won’t even know the difference.” Unfortunately, the rest of us will.

Just because the Forest Service added 3 new alternatives, doesn’t mean that the agency will pick one of the new ones. All alternatives are on the table.

You may have previously commented on the DEIS, but it’s critical to weigh in on the 3 new alternatives in the SDEIS. Send comment to:

I want to see a healthy tourist economy, and there are changes that can be made to accommodate additional tourists. A properly sited Welcome Center, more bathrooms, better parking, improvements to Steep Creek and the existing Nugget Falls Trail, shifting to electric buses or shuttles, and improved trails are reasonable changes where development has largely already occurred. On the west side of the lake, new cabins, some parking and trail improvements are also welcome. Let’s not continue to spread impacts across the MGRA that affect local residents, as well as the more adventurous tourists.

•Ken Post is a Juneau resident. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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