Over the weekend, President Barack Obama announced plans to formally restore Mt. McKinley’s original name Denali, an Athabascan word meaning “the high one.” This move, which will take place during the president’s trip to Alaska this week, re-ignites a decades-long conflict between residents of Alaska and Ohio, where the mountain’s namesake hailed from. Although locals have called the mountain Denali for ages, its official name comes from William McKinley, the 25th U.S. president, who was assassinated during his second term.
Some midwest lawmakers are outraged by the name change, claiming it insults the mountain’s namesake and the legacy of his home state of Ohio. The peak was originally named after McKinley by a prospector shortly after the election of 1897. McKinley had never visited Alaska, so many residents of that state don’t feel it was ever appropriate to name the tallest peak after him. What most people don’t know, however, is that this decision wasn’t a whim by the president. The state of Alaska has had a standing request to change the mountain’s name since 1975, when then-Governor Jay Hammond appealed to the federal government.
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America’s largest peak stands 20,320 feet above sea level and is actually still growing, according to the National Park Service, at a rate of about one millimeter per year. The peak is the centerpoint of Denali National Park, which was established in 1980. At that time, the Alaska state Board of Geographic Names renamed the mountain Denali, but Ohio lawmakers blocked federal requests to align the name change at that level.
Obama’s visit to Alaska is part of his last ditch effort to inspire a fiercer fight against climate change, which is particularly evident in the state as glacial melt accelerates.
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