JUNEAU -- The U.S. Forest Service has awarded permits for thousands of guided tours at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor center, but had requests for three times as many trips as were available.
Visitors to the increasingly popular Mendenhall Glacier can watch climate change in action as icebergs calve from the face of the glacier and dot Mendenhall Lake.
Friday's award of 239,000 trip slots to a slew of local tour companies was the first time in a generation that businesses were able to bid for authority to take clients to one of the nation's most accessible glaciers. It's an opportunity they won't have again until 2020, when the rest of the trips become available, said John Neary, the center's director.
Independent visitors can visit the glacier at will. The caps only allocate trips by bus visitors and guided trips on Mendenhall Lake and surrounding Forest Service trails.
Demand to see the glacier has soared over the years, combining a growing interest in Alaska tourism and people's desire to see a disappearing glacier.
The visitor center itself was less than a quarter of a mile from the glacier when it was built in 1962, Neary said. Now, it is more than 1-1/2 mile away.
Neary calls that "a great learning opportunity" to talk about climate change.
But his immediate problem is a center that's reached its visitor capacity, he said. It may actually be above capacity, judging by the lines at the women's restrooms on the busy days.
"We obviously need a bunch more stalls," Neary said.
Neary said the last time tour companies were able to bid for glacier tour opportunities was in 1996, but in the nearly 20 years since visitation grew from 200,000 to more than 450,000 last year.
Neary said the current congestion meant the Forest Service couldn't offer more trips.
"We told the tour operators that are just transporting clients out there that they can't have any more than they had in the past, there will be no new use offered, it will just be a recycling of expiring permits," he said.
But the center is developing a new master plan, along with significant increases in fees, which may both reduce congestion and provide the ability to increase visitation.
What the newly allocated trip permits do is offer trips by boat and on the trails as a way to shift usage.
"Now we are going to try to increase use out on the trails and on the lake, and over in the west side, because those areas are less crowded," Neary said. "But the bulk of the demand is still coming for the visitor center core."
Neary said that the East Glacier Trail, which is popular with local residents trying to avoid tourists, will see only a slight increase in usage.
The tour companies all pay the same amount to the Forest Service per trip, $1.65 per person, but compete on visitor satisfaction, business opportunity and minimal impact on Mendenhall resources, the Forest Service said.