Rocky Mountain Low
The late musician John Denver’s love of wilderness is driving an effort to name a peak on a prominent western Colorado mountain after him.
But as it turns out, the peak’s location in a wilderness area poses a Rocky-Mountain-high obstacle to the undertaking’s success.
Littleton resident J.P. McDaniel’s effort to get the eastern of the twin summits of Mount Sopris south of Carbondale named for Denver, who moved to the Aspen area as a young man, has drawn widespread media and online attention in recent weeks. The buzz has boosted McDaniel’s petition drive signatures by a couple thousand.
It also has elicited opposition from some who’d rather that McDaniel leave alone the landmark named for Richard Sopris, who before serving in the Civil War and being elected mayor of Denver led a prospecting expedition that passed by the mountain.
McDaniel’s proposal “is just ridiculous because everybody calls that Mount Sopris. Both summits are known as Mount Sopris,” said Carbondale resident Lou Dawson, a mountaineering guidebook author and the first person to have skied all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks.
PEAK VERSUS MOUNTAIN?
McDaniel said it’s important to distinguish between her attempt to name an unnamed peak on the mountain, and renaming the mountain itself.
“It gets a little confusing, and I think that’s why some people have become real possessive of the mountain, and they’re not understanding that … Mount Sopris would be named Mount Sopris no matter what,” she said.
Indeed, “It is possible to name an unnamed peak on a mountain without affecting the name of the mountain in any way; numerous peaks on a mountain of one name can have each peak named with a different name without affecting the official name of the larger mountain,” according to correspondence Dawson received from the U.S. Board on Geographic Names and posted on his http://www.wildsnow.com website.
But Lou Yost, executive secretary for the board, said a big challenge for McDaniel’s proposal — which he has yet to receive — could be the wilderness area question. Mount Sopris is in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area.
Based on its interpretation of the Wilderness Act of 1964, “The board just feels that applying any more new names to features in wilderness areas detracts from the wilderness experience that future generations will have and it … won’t do it unless the proponent makes an overriding case,” Yost said.
He said exceptions normally would be made for reasons such as safety, or perhaps educational purposes.
Yost said the board receives about 300 to 350 applications for proposed geographic names or name changes each year. Perhaps 80 to 85 percent are approved in general, but that percentage falls to probably 4 percent or less when the proposals involve wilderness areas, he said.
McDaniel wants the east peak named for Denver because he wrote his hit “Rocky Mountain High,” which in 2007 became Colorado’s second official state song, at Williams Lake, east of that peak. It also overlooks the Windstar Land Conservancy, nearly 1,000 acres that Denver donated to the public.
McDaniel got to know Denver while working with the Windstar Foundation environmental education nonprofit, which he co-founded. He died in 1997 while piloting an experimental aircraft that crashed.
Although McDaniel knows Denver’s music well, she said her petition drive is motivated by his environmentalism, which included working on behalf of conservation groups and causes such as replanting trees and protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
“He won many different awards for his conservation work, his environmental work. I think some people don’t realize this, how active he was with environmental causes,” she said.
At least one-third of his songs also are nature-oriented, McDaniel said.
McDaniel said she is aware of the challenge of getting something named in a wilderness area, but she thinks Denver qualifies for an exception to the board’s rule.
“I think because it would be John Denver and all of the work that he has put forth, all of the effort that he has put forth with wilderness preservation, I think that it would be appropriate to name a peak in his honor,” she said.
Speaking Thursday, she said she had collected probably 2,800 signatures for her petition, and she hoped to submit them to the board by week’s end.
“I haven’t really had time to promote it. I’m just really surprised that it has taken off to the caliber that it has,” she said.
STIRRING SOPRIS SUPPORTERS
Opposition has taken off as well, including through an obligatory Facebook page (“Don’t Name Mt. Sopris After John Denver,” 157 members).
“What? Change the name of Mt. Sopris to John Denver Mountain? No way!” declared the homepage of the website of the Carbondale-based Mount Sopris Historical Society, which urged people to voice their opposition. (However, the website since has been changed to simply suggest submitting comments of any kind and make clear the society board has yet to take a position on the issue.)
That website’s original objection to renaming the mountain would appear to demonstrate the confusion McDaniel says continues to exist on the issue. But Dawson says confusion is one of the problems with trying to name a peak of a mountain that already has a different name.
Mount Sopris, in Pitkin County, towers majestically over the lower Roaring Fork Valley with east and west summits that are of the same height, 12,953 feet. Dawson said most people who climb the mountain go up the east peak and say they have climbed Sopris.
“And the east summit has a benchmark on it that says Sopris,” he said.
As an alternative, he has proposed on his website that McDaniel seek to have a “beautiful,” unnamed 12,176-foot peak just above Williams Lake named for Denver.
McDaniel is hopeful when it comes to her effort, but she is leaving the door open to other possibilities.
“Mount Sopris, I think it would be the ideal mountain, but certainly there’s other mountains that could be named after John in that area,” she said.
Yost said the board has gotten perhaps 20 to 25 comments regarding McDaniel’s proposal, despite having not yet received the proposal itself. Most of those comments are in opposition to the change, he said.
He said the board would seek input at the county level, from the U.S. Forest Service and from the Colorado Geographical Names Board before making any decision.
He said in the best-case scenario, consideration of a name change could take eight months. But he expects the process would take longer for McDaniel’s proposal because wilderness is involved.
He added, “I have the feeling that from the response we’ve had so far there’ll be a lot of differing opinions on it.”