Mt. McKinley to Denali: How A Mountain’s Renaming Got Tied Up in Politics

31 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Alaska-bound, Obama renames Mount McKinley as Denali; messy politics of climate, energy await.

WASHINGTON — Ahead of a historic trip to the Arctic, President Barack Obama erased a former Republican president’s name from North America’s tallest peak in a move applauded in Alaska and derided more than 3,000 miles away in Ohio. House Speaker John Boehner said Monday he is “deeply disappointed” with President Obama’s decision to officially rename Mount McKinley to Denali, its traditional name, during a trip to Alaska to talk about the environment. “There is a reason President McKinley’s name has served atop the highest peak in North America for more than 100 years, and that is because it is a testament to his great legacy,” Boehner said in a statement. “McKinley served our country with distinction during the Civil War as a member of the Army,” Boehner added. “He made a difference for his constituents and his state as a member of the House of Representatives and as Governor of the great state of Ohio. By renaming the peak Denali, an Athabascan word meaning “the high one,” Obama waded into a sensitive and decades-old conflict between residents of Alaska and Ohio. Obama departed Monday morning to Anchorage for the start of a three-day visit, bringing the American leader up close to shrinking glaciers, Arctic temperatures and a mix of messy energy politics.

The White House explained that he’s restoring “the Koyukon Athabascan name” to recognize “the sacred status of Denali to generations of Alaska Natives.” Obama flies to Anchorage on Monday morning for a three-day tour of the nation’s largest state, closely choreographed to call attention to the ways Obama says climate change is already damaging Alaska’s stunning scenery. Alaskans have informally called the mountain Denali for years, but the federal government recognizes its name invoking the 25th president, William McKinley, who was born in Ohio and assassinated early in his second term. “With our own sense of reverence for this place, we are officially renaming the mountain Denali in recognition of the traditions of Alaska Natives and the strong support of the people of Alaska,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

By showcasing thawing permafrost, melting sea ice and eroding shorelines, Obama hopes to raise the sense of urgency to deal quickly to slow climate change in the U.S. and overseas. Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, said in an interview on Sunday that the new policy announcement would have a concrete as well as psychological effect on Alaska Natives. “It’s symbolic,” Kitka said, “but the practical thing is now on all the maps and all the descriptions it will have the traditional name. His excursion north of the Arctic Circle will make Obama the first sitting president to step foot in the Alaska Arctic, home to Alaska Natives who have received less attention amid Obama’s recent efforts to improve conditions for Native Americans.

Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, said McKinley deserved to be honored, and invited his colleagues to join him to try to block what he called Obama’s “constitutional overreach.” “This political stunt is insulting to all Ohioans, and I will be working with the House Committee on Natural Resources to determine what can be done to prevent this action,” Gibbs said. Started in 1947 after tribal leaders had recruited sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who dedicated his life to the sculpture until his death in 1982, the sculpture intended to portray the Sioux leader on horseback remains unfinished but not forgotten. For thousands of years, Native Americans called this pear-shaped island in southern Rhode Island “Manisses” (“Island of the Little God, “) until it was visited in 1614 by Dutch explorer Adriaen Block, who renamed it after himself. Yet Obama was to navigate far more turbulent political waters when he arrived Monday afternoon in Anchorage, where his grand declarations on climate change have been met with skepticism by leaders in a state that’s heavily dependent on oil revenues that have fallen precipitously. At 20,320 feet, the mountain stands as the continent’s tallest, and is still growing at a rate of about one millimeter per year, according to the National Park Service.

They took particular offense at his administration’s move just a few weeks ago to give Royal Dutch Shell a final permit for expanded drilling off Alaska’s northwest coast. “I share people’s concerns about offshore drilling. Known for its majestic views, the mountain is dotted with glaciers and covered at the top with snow year-round, with powerful winds that make it difficult for the adventurous few who seek to climb it.

And before the president’s critics start throwing around the phrase “power grab” with too much enthusiasm, let’s also note that the Alaska Dispatch News’ report added, “Jewell’s authority stems from a 1947 federal law that allows her to make changes to geographic names through the U.S. Yet he said the economy still had to rely on oil and gas while it transitions to cleaner renewable fuels, and said his administration was ensuring risks were minimized. For the last 40 years, Ohio Republicans have resisted any change – McKinley is one of six presidents from the Buckeye State – characterizing the restoration of Denali as a slight.

Said Boehner, R-Ohio: “I’m deeply disappointed in this decision.” The state of Alaska has had a standing request to change the name dating back to 1975, when the legislature passed a resolution and then-Gov. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, sought to shift attention back to Alaska’s energy needs. “I want to highlight one aspect of Arctic policy that I hope will be at the forefront of the discussion: the people who live in the region, and their need for sustainable economic activity,” Murkowski said, praising oil revenues for funding advances in medicine, communications and basic infrastructure. Some may know Lake Superior’s name from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 poem “Hiawatha,” or from the opening to Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 song “God The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald.” “The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down, Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee,” Lightfoot sang. Obama and Kerry are intensely focused on a global climate treaty that nations hope to finalize in December, as the president works to secure his environmental legacy before leaving office.

The president has pledged a U.S. cut in greenhouse gas emissions of up to 28 percent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels, and planned to use the Alaska visit to press other nations to commit to similarly ambitious measures. Upon hearing the news that McKinley, a Republican, had received his party’s nomination to be president, the prospector named it after him and the name was formally recognized.

His visit continues Wednesday in Dillingham, in southwest Alaska, where Obama will meet with fishermen locked in an ongoing conflict with miners over plans to build a massive gold and copper mine in Bristol Bay, home to the world’s largest salmon fishery. He’ll then trek through wilderness while being taped for an episode of the NBC show “Running Wild with Bear Grylls,” which tests celebrities on their survival skills.

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