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Forest Service seeks more input on Mendenhall Glacier area change

Forest Service seeks more input on Mendenhall Glacier area change
Pavilion at Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area on January 19, 2023. The National Forest Service’s Mendenhall Improvement Project proposed seven alternative plans to upgrade the visitor accommodations, including replacing the pavilion with a new welcome center (Photo by Anna Caney / KTO)

Mendenhall Glacier is one of Alaska’s most visited tourist attractions in the summer. But on a misty, drizzly day in January, it was quiet except for the sound of Laurie Craig’s snow crunches.

She stood in the pavilion at the edge of the parking lot, gesturing toward the expanse of hemlock and spruce toward Nugget Falls. Craig saw hundreds of thousands of tourists pass through when she was head naturalist at the visitor center. Now, she is retired.

โ€œThat waterfall is awe-inspiring for people. They can stand in the mist. And they are thrilled. There are goats you can see up on the mountain, there are bears running, perched in the trees,โ€ said Craig “How do we preserve that magic? While we are hosting a million people?”

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

The US Forest Service is asking the public to help solve the dilemma between now and February 21, during a third public comment period Mendenhall Improvement Project.

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

Ranger Tristan Fluherty says public feedback โ€” about 400 comments last time โ€” prompted the release of three new plans earlier this month.

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

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

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new options Primarily addressing public concerns regarding 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 present three different visions for the new visitor center. Previous plans had proposed a new reception center in place of the pavilion by Lake Mendenhall. It raised concerns over blocking the existing panoramic view. New options preserve the view by relocating the new welcome center โ€“ either by replacing the existing visitor center, or by making it two separate buildings along the lake.

Perhaps most significantly, Alternative 6 is the only one that docks motorized boats on Mendenhall Lake. During the previous public comment period, the presence of the boats raised concerns about visitor safety, emissions, wildlife disturbance, and more general fears about commercialization.

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

But for all these plans, Craig worries about the bears. They fear that expanding the trail will break up habitats and increase potential encounters with people. Still, she says the new options address many of her previous concerns, and she hopes people will continue to share their opinions this time around.

โ€œPeople get very tired of coming back and doing the same things over and over again. I’ve been there,” she said. โ€œImportantly, when we commented last time and said we wanted something different, the Forest Service listened, and is offering something new for us to consider,โ€ she said.

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There will be a webinar at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center on January 24, 2023 from 4:00 pm to 7:30 pm and on Thursday January 26, 5:30 to 7:30 pm for the public to learn. More.

Comments can be submitted onlineBy fax, by post or by hand by February 21.

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