The view from the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center as seen in late February. The center was the site of an open house to draw public comment on a proposed overhaul of the recreation area. (Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire File)

The view from the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center as seen in late February. The center was the site of an open house to draw public comment on a proposed overhaul of the recreation area. (Ben Hohenstatt | Juneau Empire File)

Opinion: We can do better at the glacier

Tell the Forest Service.

  • Thursday, March 12, 2020 1:30am
  • Opinion

The Forest Service is considering massive expansion of facilities at Mendenhall Glacier. The federal agency is asking for our opinions on their ideas. The deadline to submit written comments is March 19. I urge you to do so in writing now. This is a new process; comments submitted in the past need to be sent to another address listed below.

Proposals include filling in a salmon spawning pond to create tour bus parking, constructing welcome center buildings that would block views of the glacier and building several removable docks to accommodate boat traffic for summer visitors to “chase the ice” at the glacier’s rocky terminus. Expansion would conflict with known bear trails.

I think we can do better. We can capitalize on the natural treasures we have without expensive seasonal infrastructure.

[It’s like we’re loving it to death]

The Forest Service needs to examine alternatives. We should focus on natural features that visitors crave: wildlife and waterfalls, with the backdrop of Mendenhall Glacier. To outsiders, a walk to Nugget Falls is a magical trek. They can stand in the cool mist and look up at wild mountain goats on Bullard Mountain. We can improve the wide beach access so even people with limited mobility can get a closer view. And we can continue to protect sensitive ground-nesting killdeer and Arctic Tern nesting habitat to do so.

We need to fully understand bear habitat usage before extending trails and platforms into their most essential foraging areas. We need to avoid disrupting the bears’ critical wild food source of salmon in Steep Creek. Without studies, we don’t know what impact these construction projects will have or where the bears travel.

Replacing the stream culverts beneath Glacier Spur Road is a great idea, but we should not mix trails for people with bear trails under that bridge, as proposed. A handsome bridge can establish a formal area entry that frames the lake and mountain views. If well-planned, the bridge with extended platforms can offer great bear viewing at a safe distance.

To make the glacier area safer and more human-friendly, let’s concentrate all the buses away from the front by making the present bus parking lot into a welcome center with visitor facilities in buildings that can be shuttered and drained for winter. From there, visitors can either walk or board silent electric shuttles a few hundred yards to glacier viewing. For six months we can create a pedestrian-friendly zone without rumbling motor coaches, diesel fumes, and hazardous car traffic. That means our local vehicles will be parked elsewhere also, but it would be a fair compromise to make a truly clean-air vista. There is little consideration of improving air quality and reducing noise from traffic. Climate change is disregarded.

We can continue to use the existing visitor center year round with some upgraded modifications. The present outdoor restrooms — the most in-demand summer facility — can be extended farther into the bedrock. To pay for this costly investment in underground drilling, we can forgo the very expensive seasonal docks along the lakeshore for boats to race across the lake to “chase the ice.” Sadly, we have lost that race. When most ship passengers cruise to Tracy Arm or Glacier Bay, a distant rock pile across Mendenhall Lake will surely disappoint people.

We can require all buildings to meet highest energy saving architectural standards that don’t contribute to climate change. We have the best reason to do so: our glacier is melting at an astonishing rate.

As envisioned now, the Forest Service’s proposals would turn the Mendenhall Glacier from a unique natural area into a congested theme park. However, if we thoughtfully develop the glacier we can continue to accommodate visitors, residents, and most importantly the wildlife that makes Mendenhall unique. We need creative ideas for the future, not just old pave-over plans.

Please study the proposals at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=53780. Click on “Scoping” to find “2020” documents. Submit written comments by March 19 to comments-alaska-tongass-juneau@usda.gov. Add “MGRA” to the subject line.

• Laurie Ferguson Craig is a retired lead naturalist at Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center where she worked from 2004-2018. She is a 50 year Juneau resident. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.

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