Budget cuts make Washington only state without board to decide place names

The Washington Board on Geographic Names has not just been slashed from the budget, but written out of existence in Olympia, making the Evergreen State the only one without such a body. Who will keep our maps from chaos now?
Crosscut archive image.

Mount Rainier

The Washington Board on Geographic Names has not just been slashed from the budget, but written out of existence in Olympia, making the Evergreen State the only one without such a body. Who will keep our maps from chaos now?

The cutting has been nasty in Olympia. Tough times, but some cuts are simply hard to comprehend because they don't result in much, if any, savings.

Here's one shocker that's gone under the radar: the elimination of the Washington State Board on Geographic Names. Washington now becomes the only state in the union without a local names board or naming authority.

The Names Board are the folks who recently approved the milestone designation of the Salish Sea and who have presided on place-name controversies like the oft-proposed renaming Mount Rainier. The bill passed in Olympia and signed by governor Christine Gregoire terminates the board, which had previously lost its funding but was continuing to do its work on a volunteer basis.

The bill slashed all manner of boards and commissions (including the Oil Spill Advisory Council — is that great timing or what?). The Names Board had operated under the auspices of the Department of Natural Resources (the board website has not yet been taken down) and met about twice a year to hear new proposals and settle controversies.

The board consisted of historians, librarians, scholars, and other citizens who helped to keep Washington's geography straight. They provided local oversight over the names that appear on state maps and charts. Citizens could nominate names of unnamed places, or name changes, and the board would review them.

The resulting discussions were wonderful windows onto our history and heritage, and the board's decisions literally could put a place on the map. They ensured that local input was considered before being passed on for review in Washington, DC by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names which has control over the database that guides the making of national maps, charts, globes, etc. State law required board approval before a name could appear on maps.

There are good reasons for doing this, including public safety. It is a good thing to have everyone working off the same charts or maps, especially emergency responders. The state board's job was to help keep everyone on the same page. This lack of oversight concerns Caleb Maki, the DNR staffer who facilitated the board, and was proud to keep it going even without a budget.

Maki continues to hang on to the board's files and communicate with the U.S. Board, which will consider pending Washington name proposals. However, without local review or priority, names working their way along at the national level might become stalled, and the national decision-makers will be operating without studied local input.

It's worth pointing out that the Salish Sea designation — which gained international headlines, pleased tribes and scientists, and was a model of cross-border cooperation — would never have happened without the state board's leadership in reviewing the application and approving it in Washington state. Without the state board's sanction, neither the U.S., British Columbia nor Canada would have acted. As it was, a major geographic feature was added to the map because the concept was rigorously vetted and gained widespread support at the state level.

So, if Washington no longer has a gatekeeper for its place names, what does that mean? Who gets to put, or remove, names from the land? Are we now the wild frontier when it comes to naming?

Maki says yes, we might be "in the naming Wild West." There is no state law prohibiting anyone from applying their own name to anything. This could be a boon for developers, planners, or corporations who want to reshape what we call, and the way we think about, landscapes or physical features. The problem isn't bad names necessarily but the discrepancies that creep in over time between what the map says and what locals say: You call it Mount Rainier, I say Mount Tahoma, local Indians might call it "Ti'Swaq."

The Rainier debate is like the volcano, quietly active. Some Native Americans, including some of the Puyallup tribe, are newly pushing to re-designate the mountain Ti'Swaq, "to rightfully reclaim and restore the Creator (God) given names to the holy and sacred sites, starting with what is now known as Mount Rainier," according to the advocates' website. The history of debate over the name of the peak is long, fascinating, and highly controversial.

The state Board has said in the past that the issue is closed, but Native Americans and many Tacomans don't agree. Any change would now have to try and find a hearing at the national level; the process for local consideration, evaluation, and public input is effectively gone, victim of legislative action. Without the names board to quell squabbles, the time is ripe for toponymic powerplays.

Maki says, "As it stands, there are no state laws that prohibit people applying their own name to any feature they want. I'm not sure if the feds would ever get involved, as there is no 'name police.' "

The U.S. Names Board is not happy about the Washington action, according to Louis Yost, executive secretary for domestic names for the U.S. Geological Survey. In response to an request for comment, he sent the following via email:

"We are disappointed that the Washington Board has been disbanded. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN) relies on State Boards and Names Authorities for local input on new name and name change proposals, and now the State of Washington is the only State without such a resource. Washington was a founding member of the Western States Geographic Names Council (WSGNC) in the 1970s, which held an annual conference to promote dialogue with the BGN on geographic names issues distinctive to western States. The WSGNC evolved into the national Council of Geographic Names Authorities (COGNA), but Washington's traditional active participation and leadership in the group, and especially their input on proposals has always been valued by the BGN, and will be missed.

So, Washington state has seceded from the national process, abandoned its leadership role, and it's now open season on place names. I guess we'll get to see if deregulation works for modern maps like it's worked for banks and Wall Street.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.