Political fog enshrouds renaming of Yosemite peak

McClatchy Washington BureauMarch 14, 2014 

— The House of Representatives is closer to renaming a Yosemite National Park peak after Jessie Benton Fremont, putting the 19th century activist and political spouse into a 21st century tussle.

Over National Park Service objections, a House panel on Thursday approved a bill to redesignate the current 12,117-foot Mammoth Peak as Mount Jessie Benton Fremont. The prominent peak, near Kuna Lake, is Yosemite’s sixth highest.

Fremont was the wife of famed explorer and politician John C. Fremont and an ardent advocate of preserving Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoia trees.

"The naming of the peak is an important and overdue step in recognizing her important contributions to California and the nation,” declared Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif.

The House Natural Resources Committee’s green light of McClintock’s bill on a voice vote foreshadows easy approval by the Republican-controlled House. It does not, however, guarantee the name change will happen. Other Yosemite-area renaming proposals have stalled before, and some have been stuck for years.

So far, a companion Mount Jessie Benton Fremont bill has not been introduced in the Senate, where its prospects may be hindered by the National Park Service’s resistance.

“The National Park Service generally discourages the commemorative naming of landscape features in national parks,” Victor Knox, the park service’s associate director, testified last month. “There should be a compelling justification for the recognition and a strong, direct association between the landscape feature and the person being commemorated.”

Knox further cautioned that while “Fremont was an important figure in the advocacy for and establishment of (Yosemite), there is no direct or long-term association between her work and Mammoth Peak.”

Fremont, born in 1824, was the daughter of U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, a champion of the nation’s westward expansion. She helped popularize her husband’s exploration accounts and promoted federal protection for Sierra Nevada public lands. According to the park service, her advocacy inspired President Abraham Lincoln’s actions protecting Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove.

“Jessie Benton Fremont unlocked the idea that precious places like Yosemite should be preserved for all time,” Mary Ellen Ardouny, president of the Corps Network, testified last month. “It’s time that this courageous woman be recognized for her advocacy of this idea.”

Ardouny’s organization represents state, local and national conservation corps organizations.

The Mount Jessie Benton Fremont proposal follows in the footsteps of other Yosemite-area renaming campaigns. They can be an uphill slog

In 2007, for instance, Yosemite aficionados submitted an application to the U.S. Board on Geographic Name to name a 12,002-foot peak after the late alpine botanist Carl Sharsmith. That didn’t work, as officials discourage naming features in wilderness areas.

In 2008, Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California introduced legislation to rename Yosemite’s 14,242-foot North Palisade Peak after the late environmentalist and mountaineer David Brower. The bill fell, having failed to attract Republicans skeptical of the environmental movement Brower once led.

Sometimes lawmakers prevail, even if it means bending the rules.

In 2012, Congress renamed a 12,240-foot peak near Yosemite after the late Olympic star and longtime Mono County, Calif., supervisor, Andrea Lawrence. Lawrence died in 2009, at age 76.

The Board on Geographic Names would have required a five-year wait, until 2014, before changing the mountain peak’s name. Instead, in April 2010, Boxer joined with Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., in introducing the Mount Andrea Lawrence bill.

“Her passion and achievements were larger than life, which is why I cannot think of a more fitting tribute than to name this majestic peak in her honor,” Boxer said when President Barack Obama signed the bill into law.

And sometimes, competing names are proposed for the same feature.

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., authored a bill last year to name a 4,000-foot peak east of Las Vegas after Maude Frazier, the state’s first female lieutenant governor.

“This is the same peak as is already proposed to be named Mount Reagan,” the minutes of the Board on Geographic Names’ November meeting note.

To avoid the conflict, Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., last month introduced an alternative bill to affix the Reagan name to a different peak.

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10.

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