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It is Past Time to Change Racist Names on Public Lands

Posted by Washington Trails Association at Apr 20, 2022 11:27 AM |

Washington is home to an amazing variety of natural wonders. These majestic spaces offer rejuvenation, inspiration and so much more to the people who visit them. Yet, not everyone feels the positive connection that draws so many of us to our public lands. Our trail system is built on land taken from Native peoples, who still have deep cultural and legally-protected connections to the land. Furthermore, many people of color have been intentionally or systematically barred from visiting our public lands. Adding to these affronts several natural features were renamed with racist and derogatory names — from tributes to Confederate leaders, to ethnic slurs — these names are not only offensive but also signal that the outdoors is not welcoming to everyone. 

Across the United States, thousands of mountains, lakes and other natural features bear racist and offensive names. These names perpetuate the oppressive history of colonization and make our public lands less inclusive. Washington Trails Association believes that a key part of creating a future where everyone feels safe and welcome outdoors means acknowledging the history of our public lands and working together to shape them into truly welcoming spaces. To that end, we are supportive of removing racist and offensive names and replacing them with equitable and inclusive alternatives. 

Small lake surrounded by evergreen trees with mountains with a dusting of snow in background.
Howard Lake once had a derogatory name, but was renamed to honor Wilson Howard, an African American man who settled there. Photo by Must Hike Must Eat.

As a community, we must not only treat the land with respect but also ensure that the people visiting these beautiful places feel safe and welcome. Today, there are still dozens of offensive place names in Washington state and it is past time that we right this wrong. Over the years, there has been a movement to replace some of these names, including a push in 2015-2016  by then-state Sen. Pramila Jayapal who, working with the Washington Department of Natural Resources, identified 36 racially offensive names of geographic features around the state. These included derogatory names referring to African Americans along with other ethnic slurs. She was successful in helping rename a lake in the North Cascades Howard Lake, — commemorating Wilson Howard, an African American prospector who first settled there — with his name rather than a racial epithet. Unfortunately, additional efforts didn’t garner much momentum. 

This movement has once again started to gain steam with the Department of Interior recently ordering the renaming of 18 places in Washington (660 nationwide) to eliminate the slur sq-.  Locally, the Washington state Department of Natural Resources is in support of this effort and is hoping the public will get involved in helping them find more relevant and just names than the proposed universal solution offered by the Interior, which pulls from other nearby existing names. DNR hopes that they are able to find names that honor the history and are more grounded in local relevance. Therefore, they are asking both tribes and the general public for their ideas. Sara Palmer, chair of the Washington State Committee on Geographic Names, is actively reaching out to local tribes and is encouraging members of the public to email comments on the proposed names to the board. The deadline to comment on this round of changes is Apr 25, 2022

This is a strong step forward, yet there are more places in Washington that continue to bear offensive names and it is up to all of us to work to remedy this misdeed. 

How to change a name

At both the state and federal levels, the process of renaming a place can be sparked by a single individual. Our friends at The National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers and The Wilderness Society have prepared a guide to changing racist and offensive names on public lands, to help individuals jump-start these efforts. It is important that this work be approached with respect; a name change is a chance to reflect on what the future narratives and names of our public spaces should invoke. We encourage individuals interested in these endeavors to approach them with respect and curiosity to see what efforts local tribes or groups might already have underway. 

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names is the official naming authority of the United States. With oversight from the secretary of the Interior, the board is responsible for naming and renaming geographic features — physical sites like lakes, mountains, rivers and valleys — throughout the country. The board allows anyone to propose naming or renaming a geographic feature. This allows us to address historic injustices by replacing disparaging and otherwise offensive place names with names that better speak to the history and culture of the place.

Similarly, the Washington State Committee on Geographic Names oversees this process for state lands. They review proposals and recommend changes to the Washington State Board on Geographic Names. Both groups operate under Washington's Department of Natural Resources and cannot initiate changes on their own. It is up to the public, tribes, individuals, and political entities such as county commissions, to propose, support and oppose a name change. The names board then makes a final judgment.

Trail names are usually regulated by the agencies responsible for managing them and the process varies with the agency. However, public demand to rectify offensive names can go a long way in speeding up the renaming process. Here at WTA, we will continue to support renaming efforts and work with our agency partners to create more welcoming trails and outdoor experiences. 

Creating public spaces that truly welcome everyone goes well beyond renaming geographic features. A new name will not erase the history or harm done to African Americans, immigrants, Native Americans and others by White settlers and the U.S. government. Yet it is an important step, a way to reflect on our past, acknowledge where racism and privilege still play a role and let us start to do better as we build a future where there are trails for everyone, forever.