WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will change the name of North America's tallest mountain peak from Mount McKinley to Denali, the White House said Sunday, bestowing the traditional Alaska Native name on the eve of a historic presidential visit to Alaska.
By renaming the peak Denali, an Athabascan word meaning "the high one," Obama is wading into a sensitive and decades-old conflict between residents of Alaska and Ohio. Alaskans have informally called the 20,320-foot mountain Denali for years, but the federal government recognizes its name invoking the 25th president, William McKinley, who was born in Ohio and assassinated early in his second term.
"With our own sense of reverence for this place, we are officially renaming the mountain Denali in recognition of the traditions of Alaska Natives and the strong support of the people of Alaska," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said.
The announcement came as Obama prepared to depart early today on a three-day visit to Alaska, becoming the first sitting president to travel north of the Arctic Circle.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who had pushed legislation for years to change the name, said Alaskans were "honored" to recognize the mountain as Denali — a change in tone for the Alaska Republican, who had spoken out against Obama's energy policies in anticipation of his visit to her 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," Murkowski said in a video message recorded atop the mountain's Ruth Glacier, with cloudy snow-capped peaks behind her.
It was unclear whether Ohio leaders or others would mount an effort to block the change. There was no immediate response to inquiries seeking comment from House Speaker John Boehner and other Ohio lawmakers.
The White House cited Jewell's authority to change the name, and Jewell issued a secretarial order officially changing it to Denali. The Interior Department said the U.S. Board on Geographic Names had been deferring to Congress since 1977, and cited a 1947 law that allows the Interior Department to change names unilaterally when the board fails to act "within a reasonable time." The board shares responsibility with the Interior Department for naming such landmarks.