The Forest Service wants more input on Mendenhall Glacier area changes

The west pavilion at the Mendenhall Recreation Area.
The pavilion at Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area on Jan. 19, 2023. The National Forest Service’s Mendenhall Improvement Project proposed seven alternative plans for upgrading visitor accommodations, including replacing the pavilion with a new welcome center (Photo by Anna Canny/KTOO)

The Mendenhall Glacier is one of Alaska’s most-visited tourist attractions in summer. But on a foggy, drizzly day in January, it was quiet except for the sound of Laurie Craig’s ice cleats.

She stood in the pavilion at the edge of the parking lot, pointing past an expanse of hemlock and spruce toward Nugget Falls. Craig saw hundreds of thousands of tourists pass through here when she was the lead naturalist at the visitor’s center. Now, she’s retired.

“That waterfall is awe-inspiring for people. They can go stand in the mist. And they’re thrilled. There’s goats you can see on the mountainside above, there’s bears walking along, tucked into the trees,” Craig said. “How do we preserve that magic? While we’re hosting a million people?”

Laurie Craig poses in front of Mendenhall Glacier.
Laurie Craig was the lead naturalist at the Mendenhall Visitor’s Center for 14 years (Photo by Anna Canny/KTOO).

The U.S. Forest Service is asking people to help them solve that dilemma between now and Feb. 21, during the third public comment period for the Mendenhall Improvement Project.

About 700,000 visitors passed through Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area in 2017 — more people than the current visitor facilities were designed for. The Forest Service has been working on plans to upgrade the recreation area since 2019.

Ranger Tristan Fluharty says public feedback — more than 400 comments last time around — motivated the release of three new plans earlier this month.

“We’ve really tried to not just request those public comments, but also incorporate them into our alternatives,” he said.

There are also four existing plans, from earlier stages in the planning process. While the new alternatives work to address the public comments in some way, all seven plans remain on the table.

The new alternatives mainly address public concerns around the placement and design of new buildings, the presence of motorized boats on Mendenhall Lake and measures to protect local wildlife habitats.

The new plans offer three different visions for the new welcome center. Previous plans proposed a new welcome center in place of the pavilion on the edge of Mendenhall Lake. That drew concern over blocking the existing panoramic view. New alternatives preserve the view by moving the new welcome center — either by placing it on the hillside, near the existing visitor’s center, or by pulling it back from the lakeshore and making it two separate buildings.

Perhaps most significantly, alternative 6 is the only new plan that ditches motorized boats on Mendenhall Lake. During the last public comment period, the presence of boats raised concerns about visitor safety, emissions, disturbances to wildlife and more general fears about commercialization.

Alternative 6, which has the least environmental impact, also cuts carbon emissions by replacing motorized buses with electric shuttles.

But for all of these plans, Craig worries about the bears. She fears that trail expansion will break up habitats and increase potential encounters with people. Still, she says the new alternatives address many of her previous concerns, and she’s hopeful that people will keep sharing their opinions this time around.

“People get very tired of coming back and doing the same thing over and over. I’ve been there,” she said. “The important thing is when we commented the last time and said we want something different, the Forest Service listened, and is offering something new for us to consider,” she said.

There will be an open house at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center on Jan. 24, 2023 from 4:00 until 7:30 pm, and a webinar Thursday Jan. 26, from 5:30 to 7:30, for the public to learn more.

Comments can be submitted online, by fax, by mail or by hand until Feb. 21.

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