Will state re-establish names board?

A new bill looks to revive Washington's ability to oversee its own maps.

A new bill looks to revive Washington's ability to oversee its own maps.

Last year, Washington abolished its Board on Geographic Names, a small baby that was thrown out with the bath water of boards and commissions being eliminated for budget reasons. In so doing, Washington became the only state in the union with no formal control over the names on its own maps. 

The board has acted over the years to resolve name conflicts, update names, ensure consistency on maps, name the un-named, and eliminate duplication. It has resolved such sensitive questions as the name of Mount Rainier (refusing to rename the peak Tahoma, Tacoma, or some variant); changed the racially charged name of Coon Creek in Chelan County to Eitenne Creek, and designated the Salish Sea. The board has played a key role ensuring that emergency responders, fire, police, EMT's for example, are all on the same page, or map.

A bill has been introduced in Olympia this session that seeks to rectify this state of affairs. Rep. John McCoy, a Democrat from Marysville, has proposed HB 1084 which would expand the state's Board of Natural Resources and, by law, give them the names board's former duties. The BNR oversees the timber management of state lands, including approving timber and mining sales and land swaps, among other duties.

The BNR's members include the head of the Department of Natural Resources, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, and forestry experts. The bill would expand its charter to including naming stewardship, and on those issues the board would include the head of the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation and the State Librarian.

McCoy says he regards this as a housekeeping bill. "I don't drop bills frivolously," he says. "In our exuberance to reduce commissions, boards, and committees we knocked out one we should have held on to." The state board was the official contact with the federal government (the U.S. Board on Geographic Names) on naming and map issues, and the feds need a local contact point. McCoy says his attention was brought to the issue by a constituent who wanted to know how to effect a name change. When McCoy looked into it, he learned that there was no longer a process for doing that in Washington.

The previous names board had more public representatives (four) and the chair of the Washington Heritage Council. Naming issues do require extensive public input, historical research, and consultation with stakeholders (academics, the Coast Guard, etc.) Still, at first glance, the proposal looks like movement toward fixing a major heritage and safety problem by once again setting up a process by which names for "lakes, mountains, streams, places, towns" and other geographic features can be considered, adopted, or rejected by the board.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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