President Barack Obama on Monday will officially restore Denali as the name of North America’s tallest mountain, siding with the state of Alaska in ending a 40-year battle over what to call a peak that has been known as Mount McKinley.
The historic change, coming at the beginning of a three-day presidential trip to Alaska, is a sign of how hard the White House will push during Obama’s remaining 16 months as president to ensure his fight to address climate change is part of his legacy.
Renaming the mountain, which has an elevation of more than 20,000 feet (6,100 metres), makes headlines for his climate quest while also creating goodwill in a state that has not been broadly supportive to the Democratic president.
Obama is slated to tour a receding glacier and meet with people in remote Arctic communities whose way of life is affected by rising ocean levels, creating images designed to build support for regulations to curb carbon emissions.
The peak was named Mount McKinley in 1896 after a gold prospector exploring the region heard that Ohioan William McKinley, a champion of the gold standard, had won the Republican nomination for president.
But Alaska natives had long before called the mountain Denali, meaning “the High One.” In 1975, the state of Alaska officially designated the mountain as Denali, and has since been pressing the federal government to do the same.
Alaskans had been blocked in Congress by Ohio politicians, who wanted to stick with McKinley as a lasting tribute to the 25th U.S. president, who served from 1897 until his assassination in 1901.
Under Obama’s action, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell will use her legal authority to end the long debate and rename the mountain.
The move elicited praise from Alaska Governor Bill Walker, a Republican turned independent, and Republican elected officials, who more typically are critical of an administration they see as hostile to the oil and gas interests of their state.
“I’d like to thank the president for working with us to achieve this significant change to show honor, respect, and gratitude to the Athabascan people of Alaska,” said Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, who led the fight for the Denali name in Congress.
Obama will meet with a group of Alaska native leaders on Monday in Anchorage, as well as with Walker and Murkowski.
Craig Fleener, a Gwich’in Athabascan who is an adviser to Walker, called Denali “a hallmark of Alaskan identity” and said the name change was rich in significance.
The first person to reach the summit of the mountain in 1913 was Koyukon Athabascan Walter Harper, and a member of his expedition, Gwich’in Athabascan John Fredson, went on to become a leader in the fight for native rights in the state, Fleener said.