40 years as a glacial gathering place

Posted: Thursday, July 24, 2003

The Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center provides extensive information about the natural history of Juneau's most accessible glacier and the surrounding Tongass National Forest.

But when it was built in the early 1960s, the center met some more basic needs.

"It was a place where people could get warm, dry and go to the bathroom," said Pamela Finney, public affairs director for the U.S. Forest Service in Alaska.

Then, as now, visitors could hear about the glacier from trained naturalists (now called interpreters), examine the large relief map of the glacier and surrounding landscape, and listen to fireside chats on outdoors and natural history topics, Finney said.

But one early feature, a shop that sold what visitors called some of the best pie in Juneau, closed in 1973.

The visitor center celebrates its 40th anniversary this year and plans a birthday party from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday. The party includes free entry to the center, and, in honor of the pie shop, free pie, said Michelle Warrenchuk, information assistant work leader at the center. The celebration will feature a short rededication ceremony and live music from Betsy Sims and Martha Scott Stey of the Glacial Erratics.

Longtime Juneau resident KJ Metcalf was the first naturalist at the center, the first visitor center in a U.S. National Forest. He worked at the center from 1962 to 1969 and helped start the fireside chat program, the longest-running program of the type at any national forest, said Neil Hagadorn, assistant director of recreation for the Forest Service in Alaska.

Back then, a dirt road was the only way to access the glacier, Metcalf said. The lone houses in the Mendenhall Valley were in the Mendenhaven housing development south of Mendenhall Loop Road. And the glacier was about a half mile closer than it is today.

The center has changed some in the past 40 years, mostly due to a remodeling project that began in 1997 and ended in 1999. The $4 million project gave the center a face-lift and allowed it to accommodate more visitors.

"It was originally designed for about 28,000 visitors a year," said Finney. "By the time the remodeling went on, they were getting close to 300,000 per year."

Linn Forrest, a Juneau architect who designed the original visitor center, planned another half of the building. It could not be built due to budget constraints, Finney said.

When the remodeling began, the officials wanted to use Forrest's plans for the complete center, but found they weren't adequate for the large number of visitors.

"Nobody anticipated back then that they were going to get that big," Finney said.

The remodeling project included the installation of an elevator, an auditorium and an expanded exhibit area, Warrenchuk said. After completion of the renovation, the Forest Service began charging a $3-per-person daily or $10-per-person seasonal admission fee to the center between May and October.

The money is used for programs that benefit Juneau residents, said Hagadorn.

"The fee demo program has allowed things like the kids' day sponsorship, the hiring of an environmental education person, expanded hours and the fact that the visitor center is free during the off-season," Hagadorn said.

The Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center is the first forest service center to have a formal association with the Alaska Natural History Association, said Hagadorn.

Through the agreement, local artists, photographers and writers have had their work published through the natural history association and distributed at the visitor center and through local book stores and gift shops. The association, a nonprofit group, uses some of the revenue to further its mission of educating visitors to the national forest.

Many products, including the most recent color map of the Juneau Icefield produced by the Foundation for Glacier and Environmental Research, are the result of this partnership, Hagadorn said.

Christine Schmid can be reached at cschmid@juneauempire.com.




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