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‘Words matter, represent what we stand for’

Offensive place names stain public lands across the nation. In Colorado, we’re changing that narrative.

Legislation was recently introduced in Congress to change Mount Evans Wilderness to Mount Blue Sky Wilderness and has since been heard at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. This legislation comes on the heels of a decision in September by the U.S. Board of Geographic Names to formally change Mount Evans to Mount Blue Sky. As someone who worked hand-in-hand with the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes and Mestaa’ėhehe Coalition in pursuit of this name change, I celebrate the progress made and acknowledge this important work is far from over.

The meaning behind place names goes much deeper than simply what’s reflected on a sign. Words matter. The names we give to mountains, rivers and streams matter, too. They represent who we are and what we stand for. In fact, entire generations of Cheyenne and Arapaho people have not visited Mount Blue Sky because the former name honored a man complicit in the murder of their ancestors at Sand Creek. That is how powerful words are.

Mount Blue Sky is one success story in a long list of prospective renames that aim to acknowledge historic racism, violence and injustice, while celebrating communities that have long stewarded the public lands we know and love today. Yet the vision of Mount Blue Sky is left incomplete without renaming the 74,000 acres of surrounding Mount Evans Wilderness. Thank you, Senators John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet, along with Representatives Joe Neguse and Brittany Pettersen, for their leadership in introducing legislation that would formally change the wilderness name. Congress should pass this bill immediately.

On the Western Slope, a formal proposal to rename Gore Range to “Nuchu Range” was submitted by the Summit County Board of County Commissioners and is backed by the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, Southern Ute Indian Tribe and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. The Gore Range, spanning 60 miles and four counties, was named after Sir St. George Gore who was renowned for egregious hunting expeditions that claimed the lives of an estimated 4,000 bison, 2,000 deer, 1,500 antelope, 1,500 elk and 500 bears. The state board should act quickly.

The movement to eradicate harmful place names from public lands is building momentum nationally, too. During her time in office, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland has issued a Secretarial Order to establish the Advisory Committee on the Reconciliation in Place Names; led the charge on renaming 650 natural features, including 28 in Colorado, to remove the s-slur directed at Indigenous women; and expanded the Sand Creek National Historic Site through the acquisition of additional acreage. As the spotlight on place names continues to grow, comes the reminder that meaningful change takes time.

It is essential public lands mirror our country’s diversity and resiliency, while acknowledging the truth of our complex history. Removing slurs, derogatory terms and offensive commemorative names from public lands is a critical step toward ensuring we strive for public lands that represent –and welcome – all people. The public lands we all deserve to enjoy should reflect this necessary progress.

Offensive place names stunt that progress. They send a harmful message to the public that endorses dangerous ideologies that, if left intact, perpetuate a history of colonization, racism and oppression. Harmful place names no longer have a place on our public lands. Removing them is essential to our nation’s collective healing and uniting us in a vision where public lands truly belong to all people.

Jim Ramey is the Colorado state director for The Wilderness Society and writes Opinion columns for The Colorado Sun, a nonpartisan news organization based in Denver.