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Congressman questions constitutionality of Mount McKinley name change

August 31, 2015 by NCC Staff


President Barack Obama has endorsed a name change for Mount McKinley in Alaska. But at least one member of Congress sees the move as another constitutional overreach using executive orders.

Mount_McKinley640On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in a statement that name of the highest point in North America will revert back to Denali.

“This name change recognizes the sacred status of Denali to many Alaska Natives,” Jewell said. “The name Denali has been official for use by the State of Alaska since 1975, but even more importantly, the mountain has been known as Denali for generations.”

But to a generation of geography students outside of Alaska, the peak has been known officially as Mount McKinley since 1917.

The mountain was first named by a prospector for presidential candidate William McKinley in 1896. McKinley won two presidential elections but was cut down by an assassin in Buffalo, New York, in 1901.

Related Story: William McKinley: An under-rated President?

The Mount McKinley National Park Act, signed on February 26, 1917, established the area as a park under control of the Secretary of the Interior in the “Mount McKinley” region in the Alaska territory.

That should be enough, says Representative Bob Gibbs, a Republican from Ohio, to allow Congress to ultimately determine the name change, and not Interior Secretary Jewell through the use of a secretarial executive order, with President Obama’s endorsement. (McKinley was from Niles, Ohio.)

In January 2015, Gibbs reintroduced a bill to retain the Mount McKinley name despite requests from Alaska that date back to the 1970s for a change to Denali. “Located in Alaska, Mount McKinley is the highest point in North America and has held the name of our nation’s 25th President for over 100 years,” said Gibbs.  “This landmark is a testament to his countless years of service to our country.”

In a statement posted on Twitter, Gibbs slammed Obama for endorsing the name change without a new act of Congress. “President McKinley is a well-respected American hero who deserves to be honored and I hope my colleagues will join me in stopping this constitutional overreach,” he said. “This political stunt is insulting to all Ohioans and I will be working with the House Committee on Natural Resources to determine what can be done to prevent this action,” Gibbs added.

Interior Secretary Jewell explained the department’s legal rationale in the secretarial order, signed on August 28.

Jewell cited a 1947 section of the federal code that allows the Interior Department to resolve a deadlock over proposed place-name changes with the United States Board on Geographic Names, an agency within the United States Geographic Survey division.

“The Secretary of the Interior may take action in matters ‘wherein the Board does not act within a reasonable time.’ The statute also directs the Secretary to ‘promulgate in the name of the Board ... decisions with respect to geographic names and principles of geographic nomenclature and orthography,’" Jewell said.

Since Alaska petitioned for the name changed to Denali in 1975, legislation has been introduced, but not passed, regularly in Congress to reject the move. The Board on Geographic Names followed a policy to defer any action on the name change as long as Congress had the matter under consideration. Jewell’s order changes the name from McKinley to Denali immediately.

“The mountain was originally named after President William McKinleyof Ohio, but President McKinley never visited, nor did he have any significant historical connection to, the mountain or to Alaska,” Jewell added.

The move was almost universally praised by politicians in Alaska but equally criticized by Ohio lawmakers. “The naming of the mountain has been a topic of discussion in Congress for many years,” said Senator Rob Portman on Twitter. “This decision by the Administration is yet another example of the President going around Congress.”

Portman also asked that the Obama administration find other ways to preserve McKinley’s legacy in the park.

Executive orders can be overridden by congressional legislation, or contested in court in some cases. For now, Gibbs and other lawmakers would need to press for a bill to be passed by the House and Senate, and not vetoed by President Obama, to change the name back to Mount McKinley.

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