How to Change Mount McKinley’s Name

I wrote this article well before it was announced that President Obama through his executive authority would rename Mount McKinley as Denali on August 30, 2015. Now it gives context why the move was so significant in breaking the political stalemate.

This past weekend, Fox News had an article that shed light into why, after more than 100 years, the highest peak in North America was named Mount McKinley, or rather why it was still named Mount McKinley. It’s older native name Denali is more commonly used, and I should know, I am reading and in conversation about this mountain often. Denali, rather than McKinley, is also officially recognized by the government of Alaska.

The bottom line reason the name is still McKinley is that the US Board on Geographic Names, a federal office with the authority to change the mountain’s federally recognized name, has deferred to Congress. But interestingly, they aren’t actually requiring a hearing let alone a vote to put a hold on the name changing process. No, rather Ohio Congressman Bob Gibbs introduced a bill to keep the name as McKinley and that’s sufficient.

My five years of serving as a Congressional aide and the past eight as a registered lobbyist has raised a bit of thought…

Buckeye Pride

While the mountain is in Alaska, more people than Alaskans lay claim to it. It’s North America’s highest peak and a point of America’s pride in its own vastness.

But the mountain was named by a gold prospector for a US presidential candidate that supported the gold standard, which was a political issue that was important to the prospector. But the candidate, William McKinley, would be elected president. He was from Ohio. The name would stick. And the citizens of Ohio had a president and a national landmark in America’s world class wilderness.

Changing the name of the mountain would not be a victimless act. Having the mountain is a matter of pride for Alaskans, and calling it their own is a point of state pride for Ohioans in the Buckeye State. Alaskans have the mountain. Ohioans want to be forever connected to the mountain.

The Map is Right

The name on the federal version map isn’t wrong. Neither is the Alaskan version with Denali written on it. In fact whatever name you were to put over the topo lines would be fine. It’s subjective. Even Denali isn’t the only native name, but it’s the most commonly used.

There was even a time when people debated about whether Denali was actually two mountains. It essentially relies on the map makers and public’s tolerance for what makes a separate mountain versus a subpeak. Factors like distance between the summits and the depth of the col between them all come into play. Some map making communities have official criteria.

If Denali or McKinley, depending on what you want to call it, was actually two separate mountains and the south peak’s name was McKinley, what would you call the north peak, Denali?

Bridging the Crevasse

The US Board on Geographic Names has the authority to rename Mount McKinley, however, its 1981 rule has made it fairly clear that the Board will abstain from taking action: “The U.S. Board on Geographic Names will not render a decision on a name or its application if the matter is also being considered by the Congress of the United States.” The principle underlying this, is that it is deemed to be considered by Congress if there is a proposal. The proposal alone, officially introduced as a bill, objectively indicates that it is a matter for Congress to decide.

This means that either the board needs to change its policy or Congress has to make a determination. I think the chances of the board changing its position are unwise for its own purposes; it would be foolish for them to be the cause of more legislation if they used their existing authority to change the name while Ohio is holding the line. The advocacy/lobbying work has to be focused on the Ohio delegation and Congress itself.

If competing bills were introduced — one backing the name Mount McKinley and the other Denali — would be something of a low priority on a policy level and may not garner sufficient attention. Congress is a responsive body, it doesn’t usually lead. It needs a crisis. There won’t likely be a crisis on this issue, especially when there are issues like the debt ceiling to wrangle over.

Without Ohio’s Congressional delegation solidly buying into changing the name to Denali, I doubt that the matter would be settled if the House of Representatives and Senate passed a bill and the President signed it, regardless whether Congress chose McKinley or Denali.

That said, if someone has a good reason to change the name, I’d love to hear it and I might know someone that can lead the lobbying effort.

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One thought on “How to Change Mount McKinley’s Name

  1. Nice article that discusses a name for a big mountain. The image you selected is a favorite of mine from that trip. It was my last day in Alaska and a morning where Denali just came out from the clouds. Flying over it later on a sight-seeing plane, I was even more stuck how the most appropriate name for these peaks are “The High One.”

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