Coon Lake: Park Service under pressure to change racist name

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Coon Lake, located near Stehekin, Washington.

Political pressure is mounting to get the federal government to change the name of a lake in the North Cascades that is likely a racist slur.

The lake and connecting creek, which lie in the Stehekin River Valley in the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, are labeled Coon Lake and Coon Creek on federal maps. But a south Seattle man with ties to the area, Jonathan Rosenblum, convinced state officials that those names were likely racist references to a black prospector who worked claims there in the late 19th century. The state’s board of geographic names agreed, and officially changed the names to Howard Lake and Howard Creek after the prospector, Wilson Howard.

But the National Park Service opposed the name change, so on federal maps, databases and mapping software, Coon Lake lives.

“That’s shocking,” African American activist Eddie Rye, Jr. says about the Park Service's decision. Rye played a key role in the hard-fought battle to change the name of Empire Way to Martin Luther King Way back in the 1980s. How does he feel about this issue? “To be honest, pissed off.”

Rye has met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C., to spur action. He’s frustrated that the feds didn’t make the switch years ago.

He is not alone. Fifty members of both houses and both parties of the Washington State legislature have now written to Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell asking them to intervene to “right this wrong.” The letter, sent on September 23, reads, in part:

“We are very disappointed to learn that the federal government has to date refused to ratify the state’s decision – normally a pro-forma matter. Howard Lake lies within the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, which is administered by the National Park Service (NPS). Since 2007, the NPS has steadfastly opposed the change from Coon Lake to Howard Lake, and has effectively blocked action within the U.S. Department of the Interior. … Today the NPS trail signs and maps in the North Cascades National Park point to ‘Coon Lake.’ In continuing to oppose the name change, the Park Service is failing to recognize Mr. Howard’s historical contribution to the area and is perpetuating a geographic name that is widely seen as pejorative given its specific origin in this case.”

The letter cites a recent Crosscut article that covered the name controversy.

Thirty-seventh District state Sen. Pramila Jayapal coordinated the letter, and got sign-off from her legislative colleagues, who represent both sides of the state. Interestingly, the only Republican state senator to sign is Auburn’s Pam Roach, a staunch conservative.

Rosenblum and others argue that the time is ripe for change. One reason is the Obama administration’s action this summer to switch the name of Mt. McKinley to Denali to match the wishes of the state of Alaska, a move long-blocked in Congress by representatives from Ohio who preferred the name McKinley. Denali is the widely accepted Native American name for the peak and the almost universally preferred name by Alaskans.

Another is that the Park Service, which is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2016, has been criticized for the low percentage of minority visitors to parks. Rosenblum, in a recent Op-Ed in the Seattle Times, says “our nation’s most treasured vistas and parklands are not seen as inviting places for many. People of color comprise 37 percent of the nation’s population, but only 22 percent of park visitors.”

This is a major issue in a country that is predicted to have a non-white majority by 2044. Appealing to a broader constituency is likely critical to the system’s long-term survival.

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Seattle writer Glenn Nelson has launched a website called the Trail Posse, aimed at introducing and promoting the outdoors and parks to a more diverse population. He gained national attention with a New York Times editorial last July titled, “Why Are Our Parks so White?” He tracks the Park Service’s diversity efforts and says that there “is a lot of talk, but there’s not continuing dialog at the top.”

Nelson worries that stonewalling a name change like Coon Lake will create unnecessary ill will. “It feeds into the fear of going to national parks that people of color experience,” he says. “It’s shocking that you learn about something like that today, 50 years after the Civil Rights movement.”

In his New York Times piece, Nelson argued that “We need to demolish the notion that the national parks and the rest of nature are an exclusive club where minorities are unwelcome…” and that the National Park Service “is the logical leader to blaze a trail to racial diversity in the natural world. It has a high public profile, and its approaching centennial can serve as a platform for redefinition.”

Fixing the map would be one small step in that direction.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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