Alaska, Ohio lawmakers face off in McKinley moniker dispute

One of the longest-standing battles on Capitol Hill hasn't been over spending or regulation. It's been over the name of North America's highest peak.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) are the current lawmakers at odds over the name of Mount McKinley, the Alaska mountain that is the tallest in North America.

Murkowski wants to see the mountain renamed Denali, the Alaska Native word for the peak. Ryan, on the other hand, would prefer it to remain named after the nation's 25th president, William McKinley, who lived most of his life in Ohio and who likely never visited Alaska.

"I can't recall anything off the top of my head that's ever been like this," said Lou Yost, executive secretary of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which is charged with maintaining names of federal sites.

Earlier this year, Murkowski introduced a bill that she has reintroduced time and again since she took office in 2002: a proposal to rename the mountain Denali.


"We refer to is as 'Denali,'" the senator said during a hearing for the bill, S. 2272. "That's what we've always called it."

In the grand scheme of things, it isn't a big bill; it doesn't create jobs in any sector or reform any policies. But the bill -- just as unlikely to pass this session as it has for the past decade -- does reflect a naming controversy that has existed since McKinley's presidential campaign in the late 19th century.

Alaska Natives call the mountain Denali, which means "high one" in the native Athabascan language. According to a local legend told to the National Park Service, a man created the mountain from a giant wave in order to save himself and his new wife.

"Only people from the lower 48 call it Mount McKinley," said David Farve of the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

Indeed, Murkowski has the support of Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who is a co-sponsor on the legislation. And a spokesman for Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) said the lawmaker supports the idea of a name change.

The McKinley name was coined in 1896 by gold prospector William Dickey. Dickey said he named the mountain after then-Republican presidential candidate McKinley because his nomination was the first news he heard after leaving the wilderness. The origin had a political twist, too: McKinley was a supporter of the gold standard, a policy Dickey would benefit from if McKinley were elected.

The McKinley moniker stuck, although locals continued to call the mountain Denali. It wasn't until 1975, when Alaska's Legislature changed the official name of the mountain in the state to Denali, that a push began to change its name on the federal level as well.

Despite a strong push in the late 1970s from Alaska's congressional delegation, the move to change the federal name of the mountain was repeatedly blocked with the opposition led by Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), who represented Canton, Ohio, where McKinley spent much of his life. Eventually, a partial compromise was reached: Mount McKinley National Park was expanded and renamed as Denali National Park through the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980.

To prevent further challenges to the name, Regula took up a new campaign. From 1980 until his retirement in 2009, he introduced legislative language each Congress that read, "Notwithstanding any other authority of law, the mountain located 63 degrees 04 minutes 12 seconds north, by 151 degrees 00 minutes 18 seconds west shall continue to be named and referred to for all purposes as Mount McKinley." The U.S. Board on Geographic Names cannot consider a name change if any legislation concerning the name is pending.

Since Regula's retirement in 2009, Ryan -- who, like McKinley, was born in Niles, Ohio -- has taken the helm in defending the McKinley name. The current iteration of the McKinley bill (H.R. 247), which is co-sponsored by fellow Ohio Democrat Betty Sutton, was introduced Jan. 7, 2011, two days after the current Congress began.

Ryan spokeswoman Crystal Patterson said that the congressman's decision to support the McKinley name isn't political and that the office respects Murkowski's decision to introduce her own proposal. But until Ryan is no longer in the House, he will continue to introduce the McKinley measure.

"It's simply about expressing pride in President McKinley," she said. "We're going to stay committed to what we said we would do."

But legacy is something that also matters to Murkowski and her staff.

"It was always called Denali, and we just want to return it to its name in honor of the Alaska Natives who came before," Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon said. "Maybe Ohio should name something after [the late Sen.] Ted Stevens."

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