The tall story behind Denali


“This political stunt is insulting to all Ohioans.”

— U.S. Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio

“Denali belongs to Alaska and its citizens.”

— U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska

The executive branch of the federal government has acted, the maps have been changed, the signs will soon follow and a decades-old battle between Ohio and Alaska over what to call our nation’s highest peak is finally over.

Well … not exactly.

After years of congressional action by representatives from Ohio to forestall action by the federal Board of Place Names and keep the name of Ohio-born President William McKinley on the mountain, President Obama circumvented Congress and made the change himself by issuing an executive order.

Well … not exactly.

A little background information: In 1896 a gold prospector by the name of William Dickey wrote a popular newspaper account about the mountain, claiming that it was the tallest in North America and that its height was almost assuredly over 20,000 feet. A new radar survey in 2012 set the official height of the mountain at 20,237 feet, making Dickey’s observation remarkably accurate for the naked eye.

Dickey assigned to the mountain the name of William McKinley, then the Republican candidate for president. Modern Alaskan newspaper accounts speculate that Dickey chose the name because he was a gold prospector and McKinley was an advocate of remaining on the gold standard, while his Democratic opponent, William Jennings Bryan, advocated the silver standard.

By the time Dickey’s newspaper column appeared in major markets, McKinley had been elected. The name stuck, and became an homage to McKinley when he was assassinated four years later at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.

The mountain already had other names when Dickey viewed it. The Athabaskan name was “Denali” or “high one.” The Dena’ina called it “Doleika” or “big mountain” and the Russians, during their ownership of Alaska, called it “Bolshaya Gora,” also meaning “Big Mountain.”

Forty years ago, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names voted to revert to using “Denali” on all state documentation and then-Gov. Jay Hammond signed legislation asking the federal government to officially make the same change. That’s where a unique twist of American law and administrative policy came into play.

Several attempts to change the name between 1975 and 1980 were scuttled and, near the end of Jimmy Carter’s term, as Congress created Denali National Park, which included Mount McKinley, there was an attempt to use both names and quell the controversy. Alaskan representatives continued to push for the name change, however, and so Ohio’s congressional delegation maneuvered back.

The name change had been averted for years because of a Board of Geographic Names policy that states that the board will not consider changing the name of a place if congressional action on that name change is pending. As such, a representative from Ohio introduced a resolution in every congressional session since 1980, stating that the name of the mountain should not be changed. The fact that the bill was proposed legislation and was pending means that the Board of Geographic Names would not act on proposed name changes.

Despite claims from Ohio’s representatives that the name change in August was the result of an executive order, the change was actually yet another legal twist. The Board of Place Names was created in 1947 by an act of Congress. That act provided, in part, that if the board did not act “within a reasonable time,” then the Secretary of the Interior could rule on the name change without board action. It was, therefore, not an executive order, but rather an order of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell that changed Mount McKinley to Denali last week. So there is a legal basis for the action, and the issue is settled.

Well … not exactly.

Representatives from Ohio claim that a 1917 act of Congress naming the mountain McKinley trumps an administrative act by Jewell. The Interior Department says the 1917 act only named the park and since Congress has already changed that name, Jewell was free to name the mountain as she saw fit. Members of Ohio’s congressional delegation say they are considering proposing legislation to change the name back. Unless they could muster support for new legislation or a future Board of Place Names can be convinced to act, Denali is here to stay.

David Hejmanowski is the judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of Delaware County Common Pleas Court.

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