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Century after peak first scaled, Alaska mountain's name still up for debate

ANCHORAGE, Alaska--A century after the first climber reached the summit of North America's tallest peak, a growing movement of Alaskans is seeking to have it renamed Denali, a moniker meaning “the High One” that is traditionally used by Native Alaskans.

The 20,320-foot (6,194-meter) peak is officially named “Mount McKinley” after the 25th U.S. president, William McKinley, although many mountain climbers and locals refer to it by the name used by the region's Athabascan people.

“This is the tallest mountain in North America and we deserve to have this Alaskan landmark bear an Alaskan name,” Alaska Republican U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski said in a statement announcing her introduction of a bill in January that would officially designate the mountain as Denali.

Previous efforts to rename the peak, including an earlier attempt by Murkowski, did not succeed.

The McKinley name has been ardently guarded for decades by Ohio politicians, who say it is a fitting tribute to the Ohioan who was president from 1897 until his assassination in 1901.

Former U.S. Representative Ralph Regula, an 18-term Republican whose district included McKinley's hometown of Canton, was the most prominent defender, often using the appropriations process to block any name changes.

When he retired in 2009, younger Ohioans took up the cause. U.S. Representative Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat, has introduced his own bill to preserve the mountain's McKinley name.

“We must retain this national landmark's name in order to honor the legacy of this great American president and patriot,” Ryan said in a statement.

1980 Compromise

The official U.S. government name was bestowed at the urging of a gold prospector to celebrate the 1896 presidential nomination of McKinley, a Republican champion of the gold standard and political foe of Democrat William Jennings Bryan, a silver-standard champion.

Name-change advocates are hoping the 100th anniversary of the first summit expedition will give their campaign momentum.

Murkowski's bill is co-sponsored by Alaska's other senator, Democrat Mark Begich, and has the support of Senator Mark Udall of Colorado. Udall, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee on public lands, has climbed the Alaska mountain.

“I think the idea of designating 'Denali' keeps faith with the Native people,” Udall told a Senate hearing on Wednesday.

The Alaska-Ohio name debate began in earnest in 1975. That year, the state of Alaska officially designated the mountain name as “Denali” and urged Congress to do the same.

A compromise of sorts was struck in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which established more than 100 million acres (40 million hectares) of new parks, wildlife refuges and other protected land units in Alaska. That act tripled the size of the old Mount McKinley National Park, creating today's 6-million-acre (2.4 million-hectare) Denali National Park and Preserve.

'Big mountain'

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