A Journey of 14,000 Feet Begins With a Single Step, or “How to (Re)Name a Colorado Mountain”

by Conrad Imel

In 1861, when botanist Dr. Charles C. Parry was on his first botanical exploration of the Rocky Mountain region in Colorado, two tall mountain peaks attracted the doctor’s attention. Following the practice among botanists to name new plants after each other, Dr. Parry named the peaks after two of his colleagues, Asa Gray and John Torrey. Today, Grays Peak and Torreys Peak, the two “14ers” that sit just west of Denver, are popular with hikers, in part because their proximity allows a hiker to summit both in one day. If you (or anyone in OLLS… hint, hint) wanted to name a mountain after a colleague, how would you go about it? The answer is a little fuzzy, but let’s see if LegiSource can help make sense of it.

Neither the state nor the federal government has the exclusive authority to name a mountain, so the General Assembly could take steps to rename a mountain for state purposes. But it’s likely the best approach is to work through the federal board responsible for naming geographic features for federal purposes. The names bestowed by the federal board are used on federal maps and often followed by state and local governments.

Federal renaming process

Geographic names, including names of mountains, specifically established by federal law or executive order are official for federal purposes and can only be changed by federal law or subsequent order. But many federally recognized geographic names aren’t established by Congress or the President, they are approved by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN). Congress established the current BGN in 1947 to promote uniformity within the federal government in naming geographic features. The BGN’s decisions only apply to the federal government; state and local governments generally use the federal names, but there is no law requiring them to do so.

The BGN does not create names for geographic features; it approves or rejects names proposed by others, based on the BGN’s principles, policies, and procedures. For domestic names, anyone can suggest a name for approval by submitting a proposal online or printing and completing a Domestic Geographic Name Proposal form. After receiving a suggestion, the BGN will conduct an investigation to ensure the suggestion conforms to BGN policies. It will also receive input from the general public; state naming authorities; interested federal, state, and local agencies; and federally recognized Indian tribes.

You probably haven’t noticed any changes to the names of Colorado landmarks lately, and there’s a reason for that. As part of the name change process, the BGN works with the state naming authority in the state where the geographic feature resides. Colorado’s state naming authority was disbanded in 2013, so the BGN ceased working on name changes for features within the state. But fear not, on July 2, 2020, Governor Polis established a new Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board that will work with the BGN. BGN staff has met with Colorado’s board to discuss a strategy for addressing the backlog of pending Colorado renaming cases, and the Colorado board recently made its first name change recommendation. On September 16, 2021, the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board recommended changing the name of Squaw Mountain in Clear Creek County to Mestaa’ėhehe Mountain.

State Geographic Naming

Since the federal government does not have exclusive authority to name a geographic feature, states like Colorado can name (or rename) a mountain for state purposes. While there is no formal Colorado process for changing a name, there are historic examples where the General Assembly named a Colorado mountain peak, including some that occurred after the establishment of the modern BGN. The General Assembly adopted joint resolutions to name Mount Evans in 1895; rename Mount Wilson as Mount Franklin Roosevelt in 1937; and, in 1978, rename Lone Eagle Peak (named to honor Charles A. Lindbergh who had been known by the nickname “Lone Eagle”) as Lindbergh Peak. The 1978 Lindbergh Peak resolution directed that a copy of the resolution be sent to the BGN. In 1949, the General Assembly passed a bill to rename Veta Peak as Mount Mestas.

More recently, in 1995, the Colorado Senate approved a resolution supporting the efforts to name a mountain peak in honor of one of Colorado’s legendary early mountain climbers, Carl Albert Blaurock. Eight years later, on October 1, 2003, to honor Blaurock’s legacy of climbing, the BGN approved naming a 13,616-foot peak in Colorado’s Collegiate Peaks range as Mount Blaurock.

Another wrinkle in a state-specific renaming is that some mountains are in similarly named federal lands. For example, Mount Evans sits in the federal Mount Evans National Wilderness Area. Even if Colorado changed the name of the mountain for state purposes, it could not change the name of the national wilderness area, which was designated by Congress.

Because it would not affect federal maps, signage, documents, or federally named lands, an exclusively state-based solution may not be the best approach for widespread acceptance of a new mountain name. Instead, working through the BGN’s process will get your (or your colleague’s) name on the map. While the federal renaming process can be lengthy, the first step is simple: head to the BGN’s website to review its policies and make a suggestion. If you’re a member of the General Assembly who would like to draft a resolution to change a mountain name at the state level, or suggest or support a federal change, please contact OLLS to put in your request.

Research from Nate Carr and Jacob Baus was used in this post.