Opinion: Let’s not pave paradise to put up parking lots and boat docks at the glacier

By Laurie Craig

The quiet of the pandemic has given Juneau residents the chance to reclaim our love of Mendenhall Glacier. Many families have strolled the uncrowded trail to Nugget Falls, chatted with friends along the beach route and enjoyed mostly birdsongs in peaceful skies. That could change dramatically if the Forest Service implements its new development plans.

The plans are immensely disruptive. We could see fleets of 49-passenger motorized boats (currently prohibited) running across the lake from the pavilion area to the glacier terminus gravel pile, requiring three substantial permanent docks. The majestic view could be blocked by a huge boxy welcome center. We could arrive to face a wall of buses. We could lose the habitat that hosts black bears and their cubs searching for salmon in Steep Creek. The view of the shoreline could be vast lines of commercial tour groups filling the currently wild vista.

It’s important to make some improvements so residents and visitors can coexist in their enjoyment of the glacier. We need more restrooms, more space to learn about glaciers and mountains, and easier parking. The key is to not sacrifice what people come to see in larger summer-only crowds with limited time can overwhelm the area.

The designs are complex. They impact the visitor center side and Nugget Falls, Photo Point and Steep Creek. Dredge Lakes would have new commercial group trails. West Glacier could have a huge maintenance dock and expanded commercial tour trails.

To understand the range of proposals, take a look at the 10 large illustrated posters erected on the middle level in the outdoor pavilion at the glacier. You can access them even if the visitor center is closed. Alternative 2 is the most overwhelming development. Alternative 4 is more reasonable but still needs modification to leave room for us.

Because the public strongly opposed earlier development, the Forest Service offered a new, Alternative 4 plan that eliminates industrial docks and motorized commercial tour boats (currently prohibited). It could reduce some of the wraparound trails that choke off bears from their essential wild foods, including spawning salmon. There are some better ideas for parking that don’t fill ponds and pave paradise. None of the plans, however, offer a discreet, sensitive location for a new, big welcome center; each plan blocks the best vista we have. But without strong public involvement the better things won’t happen.

We are in another brief opportunity to make public comments about the latest plans. We only have until April 18 to provide written comments. Verbal remarks don’t count. This letter in the Empire doesn’t count either. It only matters if you formally write online or on paper and submit before the deadline.

To explain the alternatives, the Forest Service is hosting an online webinar on March 31 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. To attend, you must register on the website before the program. What you say on the webinar doesn’t count as formal comments.

I worked at the glacier as a park ranger for 14 years before retiring in 2018. I treasured serving our visitors and watching their excited reactions. I really liked seeing my Juneau and Douglas friends bring their families to hike and kayak. Those great recreational activities will be harder for us to do with more commercial groups permitted on trails.

Tell the Forest Service to reduce the proposed impacts, preserve the wild nature of the place, utilize the historic visitor center better, and not waste money on expensive seasonal structures that block the view we love to see.

There is a 350-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement plus many lengthy support documents to review. Don’t be dismayed. Ask the Forest Service to give us more time so we can see what they have spent two years preparing for 6,000 acres of Juneau’s favorite backyard. Find the details at www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=53780. Search in the tab marked Supporting. Then write your opinions as specifically as possible.

• Laurie Craig is a 52-year Juneau resident known for her work as a park ranger and naturalist for the U.S. Forest Service at Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center from 2004-2018 when she retired. She is an artist as well. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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