Drilling at Mendenhall Glacier part of improvement plan

Contractors employed by the U.S. Forest Service conduct geotechnical investigations in the parking lot of the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area on Jan. 15, 2021. (Photo by Pablo Arauz Peña/KTOO)

At the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area, a group of workers wheels a drilling machine about the size of a golf cart into the visitor center parking lot.

Sean Sjostedt of PND Engineers says they’re drilling to collect soil samples to find out what the soil and groundwater conditions are like.

“That helps us come up with parking lot designs, building foundation designs, bridge abutment designs and a number of different aspects about the project,” said Sjostedt.

The drilling is part of an improvement plan for the area that’s still in the works. The receding glacier and an anticipated increase in visitor traffic mean that the area will look very different, with a new visitor center and parking lot.

“We had an off year in 2020,” said Sjostedt. “All the projections generally say that tourism is going to bounce back maybe more than it was before. And the consensus right now is that the existing recreational area just cannot handle the number of current visitors or projected visitors very well.”

The U.S. Forest Service is leading the improvement plan, which is still being finalized pending further public comment. Tristan Fluharty is a district ranger with the Forest Service. He says the drilling this week is part of that plan.

“It’s strictly to inform the process,” Fluhurty said. “It’s not necessarily already determined what we’re going to do, but what they find will help inform our process, in fact, as far as what is on the table for us to be able to do out there.”

Fluharty says the work shouldn’t disrupt the wildlife or visitors. Hikers wanting to reach Nugget Falls will be temporarily diverted to the Mendenhall Lake shore, but they can still access the popular attraction.

The latest public comment period on the recreation area’s future closed last week, but Fluhary says there’ll be one more opportunity for comment later this summer. The final decision on a plan for the area is set for spring 2022.

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