Opinion: Have you seen what is proposed at Mendenhall Glacier?

Many of us spent time this year hiking trails without large crowds. That would change.

  • Wednesday, January 13, 2021 1:30am
  • Opinion
Mendenhall Glacier and Mendenhall Lake in 2017. Significant development is proposed for the area to the left of the glacier’s terminus. (Laurie Craig)

Mendenhall Glacier and Mendenhall Lake in 2017. Significant development is proposed for the area to the left of the glacier’s terminus. (Laurie Craig)

By Laurie Craig

Friday is the deadline for submitting comments to the U.S. Forest Service about its massive development plans for Mendenhall Glacier. This big project needs an environmental impact statement, a step up from the analysis planned earlier. Do you know what is proposed? There are a few good things, but they are overwhelmed by bad aspects.

Think about this: How did it feel this COVID summer to explore places around the glacier (west side also) more easily than in 2019? Now imagine an increased capacity on most trails of 221%, a 460% increase on the Trail of Time and a doubling in the visitor center unit. Many of us spent time this year watching bears and hiking trails without large crowds. That would change even more than in our busiest summer. Much of the proposed impact would be to bears. A favorite viewing pond would be filled in and paved to make parking space for rumbling diesel buses and more cars. Important transit routes used regularly by bears would become large people trails, eliminating safe passage for bears and their cubs. A huge new welcome center would block the view of the lake so tour guests could wait for buses out of the rain and use restrooms.

The most foolhardy proposal is to build mobile structures at the far left gravel edge of the glacier. To get there, three docks would be built for commercial boats to run across the lake between the visitor center area, Skaters Cabin and the glacier rock pile so a few special users could see the rapidly retreating ice. Buildings would be moved each season so users could chase the ice as it disappears. Many of these same visitors arrive on cruise ships that sail into Glacier Bay or Tracy Arm with far better views of glacier ice, but with restrictions on the number of ships permitted in those special waters. Will there be limits to commercial motorized boats on Mendenhall Lake? That is not clear. What is clear is costly new structures to support boats and their passengers.

Have you seen what is proposed? Several large illustrations were publicly displayed only once in February 2020, for one event at the visitor center, then locked away in an office. Then COVID blocked any opportunity for most people to really understand what the development would entail. Knowing where the drawings were located, I asked the Forest Service for access to study the drawings before I submitted my comments last year. Everyone should have that opportunity.

I have asked the Forest Service to display the large posters in a COVID-safe, public location for citizens to study before submitting comments. I have asked that the comment deadline be halted until the posters are available and the public is notified so they can see how the place they love might change. I suggested the open air pavilion at the glacier, with temporary display cases built onto the interior walls. The pavilion is to be torn down to make space for the welcome center instead of truly utilizing the existing classic historic visitor center. After a summer of quiet, local exploration, I imagine many Juneauites feel more connected than ever to the glacier. We want to share it with guests and visitors, but in a reasonable way. We can create a better experience for everyone that doesn’t destroy bear viewing or harm Steep Creek’s salmon.

I urge you to join me in asking for better visual explanations of the plans, time to assess them, and eventually a sensible development that does not block views, does not pave over wild places, does not fill the land with noisy polluting vehicles, does not cover the beautiful lake with vessel wakes and commercial tour boats, and does not destroy the reason for visiting. Let’s leave some space for nature.

As a longtime Mendenhall Glacier park ranger (14 years, now retired) and 50-year Juneau resident, I know many of you love our place as much as I do. We can share our favorite backyard glacier without surrendering it only if thoughtful development occurs. Make comments to the Forest Service at comments-alaska-tongass-juneau@usda.gov.

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