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U.S. approves Salish Sea name

But not everyone was enthusiastic about the new name, like some folks in Pierce County.
All of the inland waters of Washington and British Columbia comprise the Salish Sea.

All of the inland waters of Washington and British Columbia comprise the Salish Sea. Washington Department of Ecology

The U.S. Board of Geographic Names approved the name Salish Sea today in a unanimous vote. The name is now officially accepted nationally, as well as in Washington State. It has been approved in British Columbia by the province's names board, and Canadian national approval is expected. The vote was confirmed by the board's executive secretary, Lou Yost.

Not everyone is thrilled with the idea. Pierce County goes its own way. It was the only county on the eastern shores of Pugetopolis to reject R-71, the gay partners rights referendum. Some say it is due to the large number of military retirees in the county, but it could be a strain of conservatism that can express itself in other ways.

For example, looking through documents provided by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources concerning public feedback on the Salish Sea proposal, a noticeable percentage of Washingtonians opposing the idea or complaining about the process came from Pierce County. The city of Gig Harbor, the Pierce County Heritage Society, and a Tacoma historian asked for more time to consider the proposal and complained that people had not been given enough notification. A place-names buff in Steilacoom complained of having a "pet name" foisted onto the already crowded map: "We need space on the map to commemorate new heroes among us but Silash [sic] seems to be a waste of time." Another Tacoman said that the real Salish word for the water was "whulge" and good luck pronouncing it the way it was originally pronounced. He thought the whole thing was silly.

There were objections by people in other places (Bremerton, Bellingham, San Juan Island, also a few from British Columbia). Many of those against were under the mistaken belief that the Salish Sea would replace names like Puget Sound, or that it would require expensive reprinting of maps and charts (it does not). The proposal has been under active discussion and consideration as part of a public process for a year, with lots of attendant media coverage (how often does the Geographic Names Board get TV coverage? Not often.). Positive comments outnumbered negative about 4 to 1, and that includes negative feedback based on misunderstandings.

Perhaps Pierce County residents are especially touchy on the place-name subject because of the over-100-year-old controversy concerning the name Mt. Rainier. Pierce County has been a hotbed of activism to change the name to some variant of "Tacoma" or "Tahoma" but has been rebuffed numerous times. Mt. Rainier is still Rainier. Bitterness about the Names board may linger. But Pierce County can rest easy; the inland waters might be the Salish Sea, but Commencement Bay is still Commencement Bay.

Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.


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