“Denali” or “Mount McKinley”—either way, it is North America’s highest peak.

Nature surrounds us with an amazing variety of animals, insects, birds, plants and topographic features. To refer to and distinguish the entities in this bounty, we assign them names—often two: one for common use and one, a two-parter, for scientific identification.

Usually, the person credited with discovering or finding something new gets naming rights. And sometimes, he or she can be pretty creative.

Take, for instance, the new species of rugged darkling beetle, Stenomorpha roosevelti, which was discovered last year in the protected area of Cuatro Ciénegas, a biodiversity-rich oasis in Coahuila, Mexico. It was named after President Theodore Roosevelt, in honor of the 100th anniversary of his speech at Tempe Normal School (now Arizona State University) on March 20, 1911.

But another president’s name—this time attached to a mountain—is still stirring up controversy more than a hundred years after being bestowed. Should Mount McKinley’s name be officially changed to Denali? 

The name game

The common name “puffin” is an Anglo-Norman word for the cured carcasses of nestling manx shearwaters. ©Colin McNulty

You’ve probably fantasized about naming your own star or planet or breed of dog. Tributes to presidents, professions of love or gratitude, and even a witty sense of humor have all made their way into our nomenclature for the natural world.

Scientists named Fedexia strieglei as a gesture of thanks to FedEx, the shipping company that owned the land where the 300-million-year-old amphibian with “bone-ripping tusks” was found. Kryoryctes cadburyi, a quill-covered, toothless, cat-sized, dinosaur-era mammal, was named by paleontologists who subsisted mostly on Cadbury chocolate while conducting their dig. In 2008, a researcher at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, named a previously unknown deep-sea fish after her fiancé, geophysicist Michael Cousins, with the appellation Pachycara cousinsi. Just a year earlier, in western Columbia, scientists happened upon a new, beaked toad and nicknamed it the “Mr. Burns toad.” Its long, pointy, snout-like nose reminded them of the villain Mr. Burns from The Simpsons television series.

Two sides to every mountain

Although most Alaskans—and probably most of us who have visited Alaska—already use the name Denali (Koyukon Athabascan for “The High One”) to refer to North America’s highest peak, officially the mountain remains Mount McKinley. Strangely enough, however, the park around the mountain is legally termed Denali National Park & Preserve.

This anomaly has its roots in the late 1890s, when gold prospector William Dickey returned to the Lower 48 and wrote an account of his adventures for the New York Sun that appeared on January 24, 1897. He stated “we named our great peak Mount McKinley, after William McKinley of Ohio, who had been nominated for the presidency.” But in 1975, the Alaska Geographic Names Board changed the name of the mountain to Denali and requested that the United States Board on Geographic Names follow suit. The state board also asked that Mount McKinley National Park be changed to Denali National Park.

Sometimes, a witty sense of humor makes its way into our nomenclature for the natural world, as in the case of the Sally Lightfoot crab. ©Eric Rock

Ohio U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula, whose district included McKinley’s hometown, blocked the petition to rename the mountain. On December 2, 1980, however, with President Jimmy Carter’s signing of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, Mount McKinley National Park (created on February 26, 1917) was incorporated into a larger protected area named Denali National Park & Preserve. The United States Board on Geographic Names opted to defer a ruling on changing the name of the actual mountain.

Regula continued to fight the name change until his retirement in January 2009. Recently, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski introduced legislation to try to again change the name of our continent’s highest point from Mount McKinley to Denali, stating that Denali means something to Alaskans. Predictably, members of Ohio’s congressional delegation have filed measures or included language in bills to retain the name Mount McKinley.

Any one of us who has ever named a child or a beloved pet knows that names are important. They suggest meanings for and hopes and dreams of the giver, as well as of the person or thing being named. But the dispute over the name of this mountain is unusual. Few similar cases have gone on as long or at as high of a level as McKinley vs. Denali.

Do you believe that officially changing the name of the mountain to Denali is important, even if Alaskans—and almost everyone else—already call it that?

Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,

Candy