In an unusually responsive action by a federal agency, the U.S. Forest Service listened to 400 commenters and added proposals for Mendenhall Glacier and the surrounding recreation area. We now have three new complicated alternatives to evaluate.
The challenge is to balance 1 million guests spending one hour each at the glacier without destroying what they come to see. The plan must also accommodate residents. This is a place we use year round and love intensely. The existing historic visitor center would remain in all plans.
The location of the massive welcome center drew many objections because it would block the view of the lake and glacier. Responding to public concerns, there are now two important changes for this building. Alternative 6 sites the welcome center against the hillside which will have less visual impact. However, the building is still oversized. Alternative 7 moves the welcome center to the present bus parking lot and creates a seasonal facility that can be shut in winter when cruise ship visitors are absent. This is a practical solution.
One of the best proposals is for all tour buses to load and unload in an improved bus lot, build a welcome center there, and create an electric circulator shuttle to quietly and cleanly move guests closer to the front. This idea relieves the dangerous congestion, loud diesel engines and unhealthy exhaust from concentrating at the grand vista of the glacier, lake and surrounding mountains. The experience would be improved for everyone. Private vehicle parking would be similar to now. Sensitively developing trails from the welcome center to the front will encourage many visitors to walk rather than ride a shuttle.
Motorized tour boats and docks have been the most controversial aspect of expansion plans. In the Forest Service webinar on Jan. 26 the staff noted that of the 400 public comment letters received in 2022, only 10-12 favored motorized boats. The proposal would allow several 49-passenger boats crossing the lake as often as every 15 minutes. This would require major construction for docks on the shoreline and at the glacier’s terminus. “Chasing the ice” as the glacier retreats is foolish, costly and hazardous. Veto this.
Mendenhall has much more to offer. Two exceptional features are Nugget Falls and Steep Creek. Both are easily walkable from any of the new alternatives. Nugget Falls is a powerful destination in itself. Plans to create miles of trails, some paved and 14 feet wide, overwhelm the area and threaten bears and other wildlife. I oppose the paved shoreline trail that would be overbuilt for commercial tours, including bicycle tours. Some new trails look good, however.
Steep Creek, with its two runs of spawning salmon, provides the classic Alaska “bucket list” view of wild bears catching red fish. Protecting this outstanding feature at Mendenhall should be the most important goal of any proposal. Therefore, we should limit platforms or trails that surround the mouth of the creek and force wild bears to become encircled by humans.
The biggest threat to people from bears is allowing bears to get human food. For that reason, I favor no food or beverage service in any of the proposals. People have intentionally or unintentionally fed bears in the past. At least one bear was removed for that reason. These animals are smart; they can associate humans with food, even coffee, and quickly become problematic. It’s not worth losing a bear or person so someone can snack.
We can achieve fair compromise by making good comments and giving the agency the backbone to choose a reasonable future for Mendenhall. No single proposal is perfect, so select options as if it was an a la carte menu. Our future depends on what we say.
Even if you commented last year, please send written comments about the new alternatives. Submit yours by Feb. 21, 2023. You can find documents at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=53780. You can submit comments there also.
• Laurie Craig has lived in Juneau over 50 years and retired as a park ranger after serving from 2004-2018 at Mendenhall.