The Alaska mountain formerly known as McKinley has a less-than-thoughtful naming history that President Barack Obama cleared up this week.
What didn’t come up in the trailing deluge of Alaska news was the role trophy hunters played in securing millions of acres around the highest peak in North America for the preservation of the wildlife, not to mention the view.
We’ll get to that shortly, or should I say, in tall order, but first – the news.
The peak has a new elevation that’s 10 feet shorter than thousands of mountaineers have bragged about summiting since the first official measurements were made in 1953. The U.S. Geological Survey announced Tuesday the official height is 20,310 feet above sea level based on measurements made in June by climbers using GPS and other instruments.
And then, also on Tuesday, Obama officially renamed McKinley as Denali, in respect to its native roots.
Local Athabaskan Indians had reverently called the ice-covered mountain Denali, “The High One,” as noted in 1794 by British explorer George Vancouver.
Denali, the name most climbers and natives have continued to use, is more appropriate than the moniker dropped on the mountain with little process in 1896 by prospectors promoting a presidential candidate from Ohio.
William McKinley was elected the 25th president of the United States in 1897, but, as Interior Secretary Sally Jewell noted in her name-change order this week, “(He) never visited, nor did he have any significant historical connection to, the mountain or to Alaska.”
Social media feedback to Alaska newspapers suggests most residents, as well as the state’s Republican congressional delegation, think the renaming was overdue. Alaska has been petitioning for a name change since 1975.
But the call for Denali goes back decades further.
The area was important for wildlife such as grizzly bears, moose and caribou, but hunting was largely uncontrolled and the railroads had their eye on the proposed park’s lowland timber.
In particular, the distinctive white bighorns, the Dall sheep, caught the hunters’ attention.
Boone and Crockett, perhaps better known today as the keeper of North American big-game trophy records, was co-founded in 1887 by Teddy Roosevelt with a strong emphasis for land and wildlife conservation.
“The agenda was to secure lands for recovery of wildlife depleted by years of market hunting and irresponsible land use,” spokesman Keith Balfourd said by phone from the club’s headquarters in Missoula. “The era of extermination is what got Boone and Crockett started.”
The formula was simple, he said: “To save hunting, you have to save wildlife and to save wildlife you must secure habitats.”
The Alaska Game Law of 1902, initiated for the Alaska Territory by Boone and Crockett and signed by President Roosevelt, established hunting seasons, reasonable bag limits and a wildlife agency for oversight. The law was the first of its kind in the country, becoming the model for state game laws and wildlife agencies.
Club members, who endorsed wildlife habitat conservation, became heavy hitters in the nation’s conservation movement. Among them was Gifford Pinchot, who in 1905 became the first chief of the Forest Service, which Boone and Crockett helped create.
Yellowstone became the nation’s first national park in 1874, but the Boone and Crockett Club’s first major initiative was protecting the park from plunderers.
“No guidelines were set for the first park, Balfourd said. “Parks hadn’t been defined. It was still open to a free-for-all of mining, logging, hunting, poaching – and they wanted to put a railroad through it.”
Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell – another Boone and Crockett co-founder – led the campaign for the Yellowstone Protection Act in 1889 and by 1894 the club was working to bring in the U.S. Cavalry to enforce the rules.
Grinnell was prominent in movements to preserve wildlife and conservation in the American West, including the designation of Glacier National Park in 1910. Grinnell Glacier is named in his honor. He founded the first Audubon Society and was the editor of Forest and Stream magazine.
By the time Roosevelt’s presidency ended in 1909, he and his hunter-conservationist officials and backers had secured some 250 million acres of federal public land, including national wildlife refuges.
“These were busy little conservation beavers of the period,” Balfourd said. “And they were all hunters. That should well up a lot of pride among hunters today. They weren’t trying to protect individual animals, but rather the conservation of the species year after year.”
Sheldon was another chip off the block. Roosevelt endorsed him as a man who “can do for the lives of the wild creatures of the wooded and mountainous wilderness what John Muir had done for the physical features of the wilderness.”
Sheldon, who first saw Mount McKinley in 1906, realized that without protection the wildlife – especially the standout Dall sheep near Mount McKinley – would be vulnerable. Boone and Crockett agreed and supported his campaign.
In 1917, Sheldon personally delivered the McKinley National Park bill to President Woodrow Wilson.
Sheldon’s only disappointment was that Congress ignored his pleas to return to the original name.
The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 changed the park’s name to Denali, but left the mountain as McKinley.
President Obama brought the naming history full circle this week, following wishes of Alaskans and hunter-conservationists who had a vision for the future.
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