AK Voices: Bill Sherwonit

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Living with Wildness" and "Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska’s Arctic Wilderness."

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Stevens Peak Is an Affront to Alaska’s Wilderness

I remember being annoyed when Ted Stevens’ name was attached to the Anchorage International Airport. The act seemed especially inappropriate, since it honored a still-living politician. And it prompted me to wonder: what the heck are his political disciples going to do after he dies? Now we know: Stevens’ name has been attached to a couple of natural landmarks that will surely outlast both the airport and any memory of Stevens. I know this is all about politics, but the naming of a mountain and ice field to honor Stevens and his legacy is regrettable and sadly – if not outrageously – ironic.

Anyone familiar with Stevens’ political career knows that Alaska’s most famous and influential U.S. senator consistently and ardently fought the preservation of Alaska’s wilderness areas. To have his name attached to a 13,895-foot mountain – by all accounts Alaska’s tallest officially unnamed peak – in the heart of Denali National Park’s alpine wilderness is especially insulting. That a “Stevens Peak” wasn’t sufficient only emphasizes the hubris of our state’s political elite. And to top it off, the chosen glacial body (located in the Chugach Mountains) is to be named the TED Stevens Ice Field. Yikes, what arrogance rises in the desire to glorify a guy who teetered, in his final years, on the edge of an ethical – and arguably criminal – abyss. (Yeah, I know, his conviction was later overturned, but too many Alaskans too easily interpret that decision as evidence of his innocence, when it ain’t quite that clear.)

If Lisa Murkowski, Don Young, and other Alaska powerbrokers were intent on exalting Stevens by plastering his name across the map, why not do so in a more fitting way? Why not the Ted Stevens Trans-Alaska Pipeline? Or instead of Prudhoe Bay, why not the Ted Stevens Oil Field? I imagine Stevens himself would feel more comfortable, seeing his name attached to huge development projects.

There is a larger issue here: the naming of landscape features for people who have absolutely no connection to a place. Years ago, when working on a mountaineering book about North America’s highest peak – now a looming neighbor of Stevens Peak – I noted my own preference for the lyrical and meaningful name bestowed on the mountain by Athabascans: Denali, “The High One.” I also included comments made by Hudson Stuck, who led the first team to reach Denali’s 20,320-foot top. Here I’d like to repeat part of that discussion. Perhaps I should mention that the peak’s official name was chosen in 1896 by William Dickey, an Ivy League-educated prospector, to honor William McKinley of Ohio, then the Republican presidential candidate (later that year to be elected).

“One other issue is worthy of mention: Stuck’s fanatical opposition to the use of ‘McKinley’ as the name of the mountain. In the preface of his 1914 book (‘The Ascent of Denali’), the archdeacon made an eloquent plea for ‘the restoration to the greatest mountain in North America of its immemorial native name.’ In Stuck’s view, the use of ‘McKinley’ was an affront to both the mountain and Alaska’s Native people:

‘There is, to the author’s mind, a certain ruthless arrogance that grows more offensive to him as the years pass by, in the temper that comes to a ‘new’ land and contemptuously ignores the native names of conspicuous natural objects, almost always appropriate and significant, and overlays them with names that are, commonly, neither the one nor the other.’”

It’s true that the circumstances are different here. Stevens Peak replaces the unofficial name of South Hunter Peak (itself derived from nearby Mount Hunter, which ironically honors another person who never even visited Alaska). Still, the naming continues the “ruthless arrogance” and offensive Euro-American tradition of naming places for people who have no connection to them, names that are typically neither lyrical nor relevant.

Over the years, there has been a growing movement to either leave landscape features unnamed, especially in deep wilderness or, perhaps even better, to use the names applied by Native residents.

Anthropologist, writer and activist Richard Nelson (now perhaps best known for his radio program “Encounters”) beautifully describes how Alaska’s Inupiat and Koyukon peoples named landscape features in his eloquent and moving essay “The Embrace of Names,” while also decrying the gradual impoverishment of local, indigenous names “as Europeans spread west [and north], knowing too little of the land and its people to realize what was being lost.”

Where Native names have been lost or never applied, I’m among those who believe that unnamed valleys and peaks are preferable to names that primarily serve as monuments to people, particularly those of great influence who have no connection to a place. As I note in my book “Changing Paths,” even as early as the 1970s, it was no longer considered necessary or even desirable to fill maps of wild areas with labeled landmarks. In studying the area that would eventually become Gates of the Arctic National Park – my favorite place of wilderness – a team led by park planner John Kauffman pushed for an end to “geographic naming.” Over time, that approach has largely applied to the entire Brooks Range.

Even if Ted Stevens had been a wilderness advocate, I would philosophically oppose the application of his name to a mountain or ice field or river. But the fact that he fought the preservation of wilderness areas is especially grating. I suppose it is part of his final legacy, a shadow or sort of dark victory over the wildlands whose preservation he so opposed.

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