US Forest Service Plans to Overhaul Tourism at Mendenhall Glacier

Just a short journey from Alaska’s capital city of Juneau, Mendenhall Glacier is the state’s most popular summer tourist destination, and arguably one of the most accessible glaciers in the world. Located in Tongass National Forest, Mendenhall is one of 38 glaciers that originate from the massive 1,500 square mile Juneau Icefield. From its origin to its terminus at Mendenhall Lake, the glacier stretches some 13.6 miles

A strong tourism industry around  Alaska’s glaciers provides the state with substantial economic benefits. It also gives visitors an opportunity to witness the effects of anthropogenic  climate change. 

Beyond the pristine beauty and temperate summertime weather in Alaska, so-called “last chance tourism” is a huge motivation for visitors, who wish to marvel at immense blocks of blue and white ice as well as Mendenhall’s famous ice caves before they melt. 

Opened in 1962, the Forest Service Visitor Center at Mendenhall Glacier was the very first in the United States. “When this visitor center was built, there were 23,000 visitors per year, and now there’s over 700,000,” James King, a region director for the US Forest Service in Alaska, told the Juneau Empire.

The summer of 2019 is expected to break tourism records for Alaska as a whole, with 1.3 million visitors expected, a 16 percent increase from 2018. Visitorship is expected to continue growing by 2-4 percent per year. 

Current facilities are designed for up to 485,000 visitors per year. The growth in tourists has caused congestion, long waits, and an experience that is less than ideal for visitors to the 6,000 acre Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area

Robin Bouse, a tourist who visited Mendenhall last month, described the overcrowdedness. “The visitor center was crowded, so crowded that I couldn’t wait to get out of there,” she told GlacierHub. “I came from a cruise ship with about 4,000 passengers aboard and there were four  similar ships in port that day.” 

At its current capacity, the visitor center can only accommodate 4,000 people at a time.  

A panoramic view of Mendenhall Glacier and the surrounding Mendenhall Lake, taken in the summer of 2006 (Source: Mike Keene).

In addition, tourist infrastructure will need to evolve to keep up with climate change. From satellite measurements taken by NASA’s Landsat 5 satellite in 1984 and Landsat 8 in 2013, Mendenhall retreated almost 4,000 feet, or three-quarters of a mile in under 20 years. Mendenhall Lake, which sits right at the terminus, has grown by roughly the same amount.

Another visitor to the glacier, Tim Denham, thought a visual representation of the glacier’s retreat over time would have been a valuable visual to add to the experience. “I think it would have been good to have big 4×4 posts with the years carved into them to show how rapidly it has receded,” he said.

By 2050, the glacier itself will no longer be visible from the huge windows that look out from the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. ”The glacier ice was so beautiful and I felt fortunate to see it,” Bouse said. “It was easy to see that the glacier is retreating from the bare rocks surrounding it.”

Taken from the same perspective as above: Mendenhall Glacier in May 2019. Massive retreat in the 13 years between the two photos is apparent. The photographer, Henry Titzler, noted this day was about 86 degrees Fahrenheit, remembering summer temperatures averaging around 62 degrees during a previous visit in 1979.

From 2016 to 2018, six public meetings were held to develop a plan for revamping the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area and Visitor Center. The updated 50-year plan, published by the US Forest Service in February 2019 emphasizes major renovations over the next 10 years. 

The Mendenhall Glacier Master Plan aims to create a sustainable recreation experience that can adjust to variations in glacier features. King from the US Forest Service estimated the project’s price tag at around $80 million

As the glacier continues to retreat, the current viewpoints will become more strained, and visitors with a time limit––such as those who must return to their cruise ships––could subsequently be unable to attain the full experience.

“It was difficult to get up close to the glacier with the few hours I had to spend there, but the distant view was still spectacular enough,” said Bouse. 

Denham similarly noticed the marked appearance of the glacier’s retreat, noting it was “barely visible across the lake. We hiked out a half mile on the trail but we were still too far away to see much.” 

To accommodate increased glacial melt, the new plan proposes to switch from a land-based focus on hiking trails and viewing areas to a more water-based approach, complete with a commercial boat service to take people in small groups right to the terminus of Mendenhall Glacier.

There will also be a smaller mobile visitor center closer to the glacier itself. These new features will fulfill the frequently cited desire of tourists to truly be interactive with the glacier, allowing visitors to “touch the ice.”

Other parts of the proposed plan include more restrooms, a larger theater, and expanding parking availability. New walking trails will increase access to ecosystems newly exposed by the glacier’s retreat, including salmon, bears, and other wildlife. Finally, an additional visitor center will provide amenities such as food, restrooms, and directions, leaving the original building as an educational center and museum. 

Taken together, these alterations could give the visitors a more pleasant and informative stay, showing them the glacier as it is now and as it had been. And it could awaken in them a sense of the urgency of climate change as a pressing issue, whether on vacation or back at home.

Cruise Ships Cause Murrelets to Demur: Management and Tourism in Glacier Bay

Visitors aboard a cruise ship visit Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park (Source: National Park Service).

When the U.S. National Park Service was established by the Organic Act of 1916, just over 100 years ago, it was given two mandates: to protect the natural resources in its parks, while also allowing for enjoyment of those resources. Sometimes, these mandates conflict. In a May 2017 paper in PLOS One, Timothy Marcella and his co-authors describe one such case. The paper shows that cruise ship traffic in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve disturbs two rare seabird species, Kittlitz’s and marbled murrelets.

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, a 3.3 million acre region of water and land in Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage, is characterized by vast tidewater glaciers and the landscape created as they recede, a succession from bare rock to mature spruce and hemlock forests. The Park provides crucial habitat for Kittlitz’s murrelets, which nest on the ground in deglaciated terrain, drawn to tidewater glaciers and the marine invertebrates and fish that live in glacial outflow. Up to 37 percent of the global population of Kittlitz’s murrelets visits Glacier Bay in the spring and summer, and as much as 95 percent breeds in Alaska, as the authors indicate. Closely related to Kittlitz’s murrelets, marbled murrelets nest in old-growth forests, crucial habitat preserved by the Park.

Wildlife observers poised on the bows of cruise ships found that, in areas of the cruise track dominated by Kittlitz’s murrelets, 61 percent of all murrelets approached within 850 meters by a cruise ship showed signs of disturbance. For a seabird, this means changing from a “loafing” behavior like sleeping, preening or swimming, to either taking flight or diving. In areas of the park where marbled murrelets were more prevalent, the effect was even greater— 71 percent of birds dove or flew away.

A Kittlitz’s murrelet flies over Kachemak Bay, Alaska (Source: Alan Shmierer/Creative Commons).

However, Scott Gende, project lead and co-author of the PLOS One paper, believes these diving and flushing behaviors aren’t necessarily harmful. Speaking from Juneau, where he and his team prepared for a cruise to study disturbance in harbor seal pups, Gende pointed out that long-term monitoring of both species suggests that their populations within Glacier Bay are stable. “If the murrelets are living on the energetic margin (having only sufficient resources for survival, and no more), one more dive could make a difference— disturbance events could equate to a population effect. If we assume that the stable numbers of murrelets over the years is reflective of their ability to forage and breed successfully in Glacier Bay, it’s not likely that the disturbance events are so egregious that it’s causing the murrelets to have lower reproductive success or survival rates,” Gende told GlacierHub.

If the murrelets’ populations are healthy, is disturbing them inherently a problem? Gende doesn’t think so. “Parks are for people,” he quipped, and noted it is far easier to measure impact to a natural resource, like seabirds, than to measure the positive effect of people on the ship experiencing that resource.

“People are moved by Glacier Bay, seeing wildlife— bears on the beach, whales, the scenic wilderness. That can have a profound impact on their experience of national parks,” he said. Positive experiences in national parks are important not just to individuals, but to the protection and longevity of the national park system itself, which relies on public and congressional support. “Over the years I’ve been doing this research,” Gende reflected, “I’ve talked to hundreds of people, and I’m convinced the experience they have pays dividends to recognizing values of having national parks and these protected areas in general.”

In addition, the cruise ship presence in Glacier Bay directly creates an opportunity for wildlife biologists to collect information difficult to gather in many other parts of the United States. The data for this murrelet study was collected by observers who boarded cruise ships for the day, a valuable and rare method of studying marine wildlife.

A marbled murrelet displays what the PLOS One study termed “loafing behavior” (Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Creative Commons).

The trick is to create policy that balances conservation and tourism, says Gende: “It boils down to value-based decisions, because it is a trade-off. Some would say only kayakers should be allowed in Glacier Bay, some would say more cruise ships should be let in. There’s a suite of values in people. The park service has done a great job balancing that range and minimizing impacts while maximizing conservation.”

The lessons of murrelet management extend to the entire national park system. All visitors, whether in Yellowstone or Denali, will impact resources, says Gende. “Even on a well-worn trail, you step on a plant, or create disturbance to soil, water or wildlife. The goal is to mitigate disturbance while providing a visitation experience,” he added.

In Glacier Bay, the Park Service’s mandates of conservation and visitation seem to be mutually supportive. Perhaps, in a time when public protection of wild lands is under debate, the reciprocally beneficial nature of these mandates can benefit other parks, too.