Alaska hosted close to 2 million visitors between May 2013 and April 2014, shattering its previous annual visitor record by more than 5,000 people. Not surprisingly, about 1.7 million of those visitors came in the summer months, but last winter did see a 4 percent increase in out-of-state visitation, according to statistics published by the Alaska Department of Commerce.
"Alaska is a worldwide recognized brand," Dan Kirkwood, outreach director for the Alaska Wilderness League said. When people hear Alaska they think wilderness, adventure, landscapes, hiking and outdoor activities, he explained. "The market demand is for the natural beauty and for this wilderness experience"
Here in Southeast Alaska, where 17 million acres of the region is the Tongass National Forest, the U.S. Forest Serviceis the most important player in determining how tourists and residents alike use and experience the wilderness. The U.S. Forest Service governs everything from timber sales to hunting to recreation.
Tourists from all over the United States venture to Southeast Alaska to see and experience the beauty and vastness of America's largest national forest. The U.S. Forest Service provides important and meaningful ways for people to experience the Tongass and one of the most visitor-friendly places is just 12 miles from Juneau at the Mendenhall Glacier visitor's center.
The U.S. Forest Service built the Mendenhall Glacier visitor's center in 1961. It is the oldest Fores Service visitor's center in the country and the most popular in Southeast Alaska today. The glacier has retreated at an alarming rate in recent years. Glaciers retreat when the ice melts at a faster rate than it is replaced every year. While Mendenhall has been retreating since the mid-1700s, it has certainly sped up in recent years. About 50 years ago, the glacier moved about 60 feet every year. In 2011, the glacier retreated 437 feet!
Despite how far back the glacier has moved since the visitor's center was built, the U.S. Forest Service has created a very visitor-friendly experience for people with varying degrees of outdoor experience. Even closer and more astonishing views of the glacier are just a short walk up the path from the visitor's center to Nugget Falls. This short trail one of the most popular in Juneau.
While the Mendenhall is retreating, it is far from disappearing and he number of visitors to the glacier is continually increasing. Statistics provided by the Alaska Wilderness League show that in 2011 tourism contributed $1 billion and provided more than 10,000 jobs in Southeast Alaska. And the most popular city to visit in the Southeast is Juneau.
Recent budget cuts to the recreation programs and the current management strategy of the U.S. Forest Service have made it very difficult for the agency to adjust to the growing demand of visitors in the area. As tourism easily becomes the second most important industry for the Southeast Alaskan economy, behind sport and commercial fishing, the U.S. Forest Service is in the unique position to greatly impact how much this industry grows and contributes to the welfare of the region.
Many tourists traveling through the Tongass do not know much about the nation's largest national forest before they arrive. But, through programs, films, exhibits, pamphlets, guides and talks provided by the U.S. Forest Service, visitors learn more and more about a forest that they can call their own. After spending even just a short time there, they all agree it is beautiful and unlike any other forest they have ever seen. Continue reading to meet some travelers from all over America and see what had to say about their trip to the Southeast.
"We have never seen anything like this! We don't have this in New York," the couple said of their first trip to Alaska. Despite the pricey airfare, they both said they would come back. "It's like being in Paradise!"
Mary is a former travel agent and has been to Alaska four times. "I just love Alaska," she said. "It's God's country!" Mary and Collette came in on a cruise to Juneau and spent their morning exploring the Mendenhall visitor's center.
Meet Mike and Debbie from Oregon!
"I'm burnt out on the boat," Mike said of his cruise experience. "I like being out." Mike and Debbie did not know much about the Tongass before they took a cruise to Alaska from Seattle, but they were enjoying what feels like countless views of glaciers and waterfalls.
"This place is HUGE with all capital letters!" Lynnette said of the Tongass. They have really enjoyed their trip to Alaska and are looking forward to the rest of their travels.
Meet Lynn and George from Florida!
Lynn and George have been to Alaska three times. This time, they decided to travel more of the land and less of the sea and opted for independent travel, rather than a cruise ship. They returned to Mendenhall Glacier to stay up to date and aware on the effects of climate change on the region they said.
Meet Peggy from Texas!
Peggy came in to Juneau on a cruise ship. It's her first time in Alaska and she described the Tongass as a "beautiful and huge ecosystem" unlike any she had ever seen before.
These are just a few faces of the thousands of visitors that venture to the Mendenhall Glacier this summer and there will be thousands more that will visit this public and pristine wilderness before the season is out.