U.S. Forest Service officials presented plans to increase tourism to the Mendenhall Glacier to a full conference room at a Thursday public meeting. The audience, mostly guide company representatives, voiced suggestions and concerns surrounding the commercial use proposal, which would be the first-ever update to the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area’s 1996 policies.
The plan changes how many tours can visit certain trails in the recreation area. For example, the Steep Creek Trail would go from 3,000 allocated commercial users per tourism season to zero. But many trails would see an increase in tour allocations. Nugget Falls Trail and Trail of Time would go from no commercial users to more than 15,000 and 18,000, respectively. The complete proposal can be viewed online at mendenhalluse.info.
One million visitors come to Juneau on cruise ships each year, Juneau District Ranger Marti Marshall said after the meeting. Currently, about 40 percent of those come to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, director John Neary said. Overall, the proposed capacity changes would bump up the number of tourists the glacier would see, he said.
“This process is about access,” Neary said. “In truth it is partially about money, but that’s not the core of what we do there. We’re there to give experiences to people.”
Making the glacier available to more visitors is good for the local economy, Marshall said. She said the Forest Service has had to turn away many commercial guides who want to make more trips to the glacier but can’t because of the 1996 commercial use caps.
Bob Janes and Dawn Wolfe, owners of Gastineau Guiding, were among the 10 representatives from the company who came to the meeting. They said their company would benefit from the new commercial use plan.
“We’ve been hoping for a new management plan for five years,” Janes said.
Wolfe said she’s not pleased with some aspects of the proposal, however. Gastineau Guiding uses the Steep Creek Trail for some of its tours. As it stands now, the new plan would bar commercial use of that trail.
“There are trails they’re taking away,” she said. “We are concerned about that.”
Overcrowding in the Visitor Center area was a topic of discussion at the meeting. Increasing commercial use will probably mean “some change in the number of dropoffs” in the parking lot, Neary said. A master plan to address the glacier’s restroom deficit could start to take shape this winter, “if we’re lucky,” he said.
Juneau resident Linda Shaw came to the meeting to advocate for the area’s wildlife. She said she hopes the Forest Service takes it into account while developing a plan of action.
“I’m really concerned about how you can have growth but not impact the environment in some way,” she said after the meeting.
She said animals that live in the area are stakeholders not represented at the meeting.
“They’re surviving out there,” Shaw said. “They’re not visitors; they’re not on vacation.”
Shaw said another group unrepresented at the meeting are the tourists who come to the glacier to have an experience. She said she’s seen visitors get in arguments at glacier sites because it’s so packed and tensions are high. She used to avoid the glacier because she found it too crowded, she said.
Marshall said the plan is not far enough along to be implemented in time for the 2014 tourism season. The Forest Service is shooting for 2015, but there are quite a few steps left to take, she said. Another public meeting on commercial use at the Mendenhall Glacier is scheduled for 6 p.m. Sept. 19 at the Juneau District Ranger Office, 8510 Mendenhall Loop Road. Comments from the community will be used to draft multiple plans of action, Marshall said. The service will then do an environmental analysis to identify the best commercial use plan.
Resident Jarvis Schultz said after the meeting that what the Forest Service decides to do with tourism will have a huge impact on the area.
“Marti kept saying, ‘Look to the future, look to the future,’” Schultz said. “But these plans create the future.”
• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.