Mendenhall Glacier’s retreat is exposing new land. The Forest Service doesn’t want it to be mined.

A glacier and snowy mountain with hikers.
Mendenhall Glacier as seen from near the West Glacier Trail on April 18, 2021. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

The Mendenhall Glacier is one of the most visited sites in Alaska. As it retreats, it opens up new land, and that federal land is open to potential mining claims. But the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the glacier, is making moves to prevent that from happening to keep the area pristine for tourism and recreation.

“What we’re hearing and seeing from the public is this is an extremely valuable place to recreate, and the viewshed is very important,” said James King, the regional director of recreation, land and minerals for the Forest Service. “And so we’re working hard to protect that.”

That “viewshed” is everything you can see from the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, where roughly half a million people gaze out at the blue ice each year.

In 1952, the Forest Service took the land around the Mendenhall Glacier off the table for mining. Now there’s a strip of land exposed by the shrinking glacier. King said his agency’s request is simply extending that decades-old prohibition to the new land — keeping up with the changing landscape.

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But it’s not just procedural. There are actually mining interests that make claims below receding glaciers. A Canadian prospecting company did just that on the land exposed by the retreat of the nearby Herbert Glacier a few years ago. But King said he isn’t aware of a lot of that going on near Mendenhall.

Since the acreage in question is public land, the change won’t happen overnight.

“The withdrawal process is a lengthy process,” King said. “And we hope to get through the environmental piece of that by the end of this year.”

This is the beginning of the environmental review. The first public comment period of the process is open now through Sept. 7.

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