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Obama Faces Backlash Over Renaming of Alaska Mountain


FILE - Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park, Alaska, is seen on a sunny day.
FILE - Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park, Alaska, is seen on a sunny day.

U.S. President Barack Obama is facing backlash from some Ohio lawmakers following his decision to rename Alaska's Mt. McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America, to Denali.

"This is not an arbitrary change," said White House press secretary Josh Earnest. He described it as effort to align the policies of the federal government with how native Alaskans have long referred to the mountain.

Obama left Washington Monday for a three-day tour of Alaska to bring attention to climate change.

The peak was named Mount McKinley in 1896 after a gold prospector exploring the region heard that Ohio resident William McKinley, a champion of the gold standard, had won the Republican nomination for president.

Ohio Representative and House Speaker John Boehner said he was deeply disappointed by the decision to rename the mountain.

"There is a reason President McKinley’s name has served atop the highest peak in North America for more than 100 years, and that is because it is a testament to his great legacy," Boehner said in a statement. "McKinley served our country with distinction during the Civil War as a member of the Army....And he led this nation to prosperity and victory in the Spanish-American War as the 25th President of the United States..."

A statement from Interior Secretary Sally Jewell says that although the mountain was named after the famous Ohioan, "President McKinley never visited, nor did he have any significant historical connection to, the mountain or to Alaska."

The White House spokesman says the Department of the Interior will work with leaders in Ohio to find an "appropriate way to acknowledge President McKinley's contributions" to the country.

Alaska Natives have long before called the mountain Denali, which means "the great one" or "the high one" in the Athabascan language. In 1975, the state of Alaska officially designated the mountain as Denali, and has since been pressing the federal government to do the same, but have been blocked by Ohio lawmakers.

"Today we are honored to be able to officially recognize the mountain as Denali," said Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski in a statement. "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."

The mountain rises about 6,000 meters above sea level and is located in the Denali National Park and Preserve, an area that encompasses about 2 million hectares of federally owned lands.