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Experts weigh in on future of Mendenhall Glacier recreation, visitor center

The Mendenhall Glacier is the most visited landmark in the state, pulling in almost a third of all visitors to Alaska. Visitor traffic is only expected to increase.

 

A new 50-year plan for the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area — for which a fifth public meeting was held Tuesday at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library — hopes to address the increase in demand.

Meilani Schijvens, Director of the Rain Coast Data, studies trends in Alaska tourism.

“Rule of thumb, when it comes to understanding the trends, 61 percent of all tourists in Alaska come through Juneau, and about half of those go to the glacier,” Schijvens said. “More people go to the glacier than anywhere else.”

The plan will have to reconcile the wants and needs of a variety of interest groups: cross country skiers, wildlife viewers, tour companies and dog walkers all use the area. The new plan will also address the fact that the Mendenhall Glacier is expected to recede out of sight from the visitor center windows by the year 2050.

The planning process started last fall and has included the public since the beginning. For this latest meeting, landscape architecture firm Corvus Design called in experts in transportation design, economics and sustainability to weigh in on how they think the MGVC and MGRA could benefit from a redesign.

University of Alaska Southeast economics professor Brian Vander Naald said the MGVC and MGRA have a bit of a “chicken and the egg” problem when it comes to financing improvements at the glacier. With declining public funding for recreation (the USFS lost 46 percent of its recreation funds from 2004-2014), the USFS will have a tough time paying for new facilities at the MGRA.

But, without new facilities, it would be irresponsible for the USFS to allow more visitors into the MGRA and MGVC. They’ll have to get creative.

“They’re actually raising a lot of user fee money from the cruise ship passengers, but in order to make these improvements, they’re going to have to raise even more money,” Vander Naald said.

He said public-private partnerships that the USFS is currently looking at may help, as well as convincing politicians and the USFS to help pay for facilities improvements. Another challenge will be to design new infrastructure to run cheaply on renewable energy.

Traffic at the drop off area is also another problem, U.S. Forest Service officials say, which has already led to a “diminished user experience,” they say.

On hand to speak to traffic congestion was transportation planner Paul Jewel, with San Fransisco firm Nelson Nygaard. Jewel has designed parking, biking and pedestrian projects at National Parks Yosemite, Mesa Verde and Utah’s Arches. He said as impressive as the MGRA is, the arrival zone at the park looked like a “demolition derby.”

“How does the transportation, however they’re coming in, how does it interface with the property?” Jewel said. “One of the first things I would recommend is to clean up and rethink that entire arrival experience.”

Jewel recommended turning the last parking lot into an arrival plaza, with no access for cars or buses. He’d move parking and bus storage further away from the park entrance to allow visitors more room to walk around near the visitor center. He’d maybe take the pavilion down to widen viewing access to the glacier.

He thinks the MGRA can do so with the land they’ve already developed.

”The best thing about this is that the visitor center complex is perfectly located. The raw material is there. I don’t have to blast into the mountain, I don’t have to pick this up and move it somewhere else. I can rejigger the pieces,” he said. “Most people maybe aren’t going another 100 yards, so we want to make that experience good for the short turnaround people.”


• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or kevin.gullufsen@juneauempire.com.


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