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Neary named new director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center

Long-time Juneau resident, known for his work at Pack Creek, ready to make improvements at local attraction

Posted: May 16, 2013 - 3:52pm  |  Updated: May 16, 2013 - 11:01pm
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John Neary, the new director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Center, talks to visitors as they watch a young black bear along the Nugget Falls trail on Thursday.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
John Neary, the new director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Center, talks to visitors as they watch a young black bear along the Nugget Falls trail on Thursday.

John Neary remembers well the time he watched a group of tourists dine on a pizza lunch at the viewing area at Pack Creek, on Admiralty Island. It wasn’t long before a big brown bear was interested, as well.

As the story goes, the tourists backed off and the bear enjoyed a tasty treat. But once the tourists and the pizza were gone, the bear came back, day after day, sniffing the same spot with the hope a pizza would reappear.

It only takes one time, Neary said, for the bears to learn a bad habit such as this.

Lessons like these are what Neary hopes to bring to the table as the new director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. He also brings 30 years of experience working for the U.S. Forest Service as a wilderness manager who oversaw the development of Admiralty Island’s Pack Creek Bear Viewing Area and worked to create the kayak ranger program in Tracy and Endicott Arms. The Forest Service manages Admiralty Island National Monument and Tracy Arm Fords Terror Wilderness within the Tongass National Forest.

Neary, who took over the post earlier this spring, replaces former director Ron Marvin, who recently retired after 40 years working with the USFS.

While most of Neary’s experience surrounds wilderness areas, he also has experience working with staff at the Mendenhall Glacier.

Laurie Craig, lead naturalist at the visitor center, said Neary has been the go-to guy for advice when it comes to bear and human interactions.

“He was the one who always coached us through the bear viewing issues,” she said.

And it’s likely Neary’s expertise will be put to the test right out of the gate.

“Lately, we’ve had juveniles hanging around,” Craig said. “They’re like teenagers — everywhere! We also have some mothers with cubs up feeding in the cottonwoods.”

According to Neary, he’s up to the task and has big plans for ways to improve the overall experience for visitors — both local and otherwise.

He said it’s time to address the congestion issues that plague the parking and restroom areas.

“If you’ve only got an hour, would you want to wait 20 minutes for the restroom? No, certainly not,” he said. “This is a world class destination, so we need more than plastic potties ... there’s a lot we can do to make it better.”

Whether it’s crowd management or wildlife concerns, he wants to cultivate an experience for out-of-town visitors that is functional, safe, efficient and allows people to leave feeling like they spent that hour well.

“The expectations are kinda big,” he said. “They want to see the bears, the glacier, maybe even the nesting terns ... ”

But Neary realizes the importance of the local experience, as well.

“This is Juneau’s backyard glacier. (Residents) care about it,” he said. “They walk dogs, swim on warm days, so I feel this sense of responsibility ... to master that balance between the locals and tourists.”

Neary said they’ll start with a facility master plan and reach out to tourist operators, local groups and residents, to gain insight on how best to proceed.

He hopes to utilize use fees to help fund the potential improvements, which may include new trails leading to popular areas of interest, such as the beach near Photo Point. He’d like to transform the upper parking lot into a pedestrian-only zone and do some rehabilitation work to Steep Creek to encourage and retain the existing salmon runs. But those are just a few of his ideas. Regardless of what improvements they plan, Neary realizes the importance of retaining authenticity.

“We must retain the fact that we are the Tongass National Forest,” he said. “(The Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center) really is the golden goose; it’s an attraction that makes money.”

Neary was selected from a nationwide group of applicants by a team of U.S. Forest Service leaders. His selection was based not only on his expertise with bears, according to District Ranger Marti Marshall, but also for his experience with community involvement in forest and park management.

“(Neary) also brings international perspective through his experience advising many African park and forest managers through the Forest Service International Program” Marshall said.

With the summer tourist season just beginning, Neary said he’s excited to go to work every day and getting to know those who share his love of the area.

“At any given point, I can just step away from the computer, walk out the door and there’s this amazing glacier,” he said. “Yeah, I feel like I have a special job.”

• Contact Outdoors Editor Abby Lowell at 523-2271 or by email at abby.lowell@juneauempire.com.

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