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And now we have the naming of parts

M. John Fayhee
Special to The Vail Trail
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When the U.S. Board of Geographic Names determined a few months ago to name a then-unnamed 11,282-foot peak at the southern end of the Sawatch Range “Mount KIA/MIA” ” a compound acronym for “Killed in Action/Mission in Action” ” it marked the end of a six-year quest, which involved three separate application attempts, by one man, Bruce Salisbury, a retired Air Force Master Sergeant who lives in Aztec, N.M.

Though Salisbury’s tenacity and devotion to his seemingly specious nomenclatural cause might have seemed a bit over the top, it was all in a day’s work for the Board of Geographical Names (BGN), which falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Geological Survey. The BGN is a federal body created in 1890 to maintain uniform geographic name usage throughout the land.

The original program of names standardization addressed the complex issues of domestic geographic feature names during the surge of exploration, mining and settlement of Western territories after the Civil War. Inconsistencies and contradictions among many names, spellings and applications became a serious problem to surveyors, mapmakers, scientists, carpetbaggers, scallywags and speculators who required uniform, non-conflicting geographic nomenclature so they could rape, pillage and plunder the land more effectively. President Benjamin Harrison signed an executive order establishing the BGN and giving it authority to resolve unsettled geographic names questions.

OK, simple enough. You’d think after almost 120 years, there would be little for the members of the BGN to do save occasionally entertain mountain-naming requests from well-intentioned retired military people with maybe just a bit too much time on their hands. You know, by 2008, everything worth naming would have already been named. Nothing could be further from the truth. On average, the BGN entertains more than 200 formal naming requests every year. Those requests cover the gamut, from formalizing informal names to changing culturally offensive names, to giving names to unnamed geographic features, to choosing between conflicting names, to correcting grammatical and spelling errors.

Since the BGN started issuing its Quarterly Review Lists online in Sept. 2002, it has entertained 42 requests involving Colorado place names. In that time, California has led the nation with 66 requests, followed by 55 from Alaska. Thirty-five requests have come from Arizona, though 12 of those, in early 2008, were centered solely on the naming of individual rapids along the Salt River.

Without a doubt, there are many naming requests made to the BGN that border on, well, amusing. In 2006, for instance, the board entertained the naming of a small creek in California to “Stream of Consciousness.” And, in Colorado in 2006, there was a request by my friend Tracy Ross, who now works for Backpacker Magazine in Boulder, to name a 13,038-foot peak near Mounts Harvard, Yale and Princeton “Rejection Peak,” in honor of, as Tracy’s application states, ” … all people who shunned or were shunned by the Ivy League and those who chose a less conventional and more adventurous path in life.” (Her request is still pending. Please pray for her success).

For the most part, however, requests to the BGN are more mundane. In February 2008, for instance, a request was made to name an unnamed peak in the Never Summer Wilderness “Braddock Peak,” after Dr. William Braddock, a professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado. (That request was made by the Braddock family itself, which is surprisingly common).

And in Chaffee County, there was a request last year to change the name of Agnes Vail Falls to Agnes Vaille Falls, because recent historic research has indicated that the name was originally misspelled.

The most popular recent local example of a BGN naming conundrum occurred in the 1990s in Summit County’s Ten Mile Range, when members of the Red, White and Blue Fire Protection District petitioned to have an officially unnamed 13,841-foot peak above Breckenridge formally named “Red, White and Blue Peak.” On the surface, this was an easy one, because the Red, White and Blue Fire Protection District had long maintained an exemplary local reputation. It wasn’t like anyone ” especially anyone owning a house in that part of the county ” was going to say that the fire department was not deserving of having an unnamed mountain named after it. But the peak had long been informally known as “Atlantic Peak,” because of its proximity to Pacific Peak, and, if there’s any demographic that stands on tradition for tradition’s sake, it’s peak baggers, who united in opposition against the fire department’s request.

A surprisingly intense battle waged for several years, during which time there were actually two registers on the summit of the mountain in question. One register was for those who believed the mountain should be re-named to Red, White and Blue Peak; the other was for those who believe it ought to be formally named Atlantic Peak. The Atlantic Peak register held three times as many entries, many of which were stunningly emphatic.

In 2001, the BGN decided to formally name that mountain Atlantic Peak. It contended that Red, White and Blue Peak was too long and cumbersome. As well, it cited “local tradition.”

Whenever the BGN renders a geographical nomenclatural decision, it becomes almost pharaoh-edict-like, insofar as it enters the realm of, “So let it be written; so let it be done.” That decision becomes codified on all federal maps and in all federal literature. New trail signs will reflect that decision. Songs will be sung and ballads written.

The main question most people have is: OK, so how do I go about impressing my girlfriend by requesting of the federal government that a mountain, stream or mud bog be named after her?

Well, first, it’s best to scour your map collection for geographic features that are nameless. (There are surprisingly many. Any mountain that is listed on a federal map solely by its elevation is likely formally unnamed). It’s much harder to get the BGN to change a name than to name something nameless. Next, go to the BGN Web site ” geonames.usgs.gov/domestic/index.html ” and click on the “propose or change a name” tab, where you will find an official application. Then, start thinking up a bunch of lies. You’ll need to convince the BGN that your girlfriend, or at least her family, has local historic significance. Make sure that you drum up a truckload of letters showing local support for your proposed name change. (This can be achieved in most mountain towns simply by buying several rounds for the house and convincing your girlfriend to smooch with as many bar patrons as possible).

Then raise your right hand, swear that everything in your application is the gospel truth, send it in and hope that your girlfriend doesn’t dump you before your application is processed. What’s the worst that can happen?

M. John Fayhee is Editor-at-Large for the Mountain Gazette. His eighth book, “A Colorado Mountain Companion,” will be published by Westcliffe next year. Contact him with corrections, clarifications and observations at mjfayhee@yahoo.com.


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