WASHINGTON – Ahead of a historic trip to the Arctic, President Barack Obama erased a former Republican president’s name from North America’s tallest peak in a move applauded in Alaska and derided more than 3,000 miles away in Ohio. More contentious matters concerning climate change and Arctic drilling awaited.
Obama departed Monday morning to Anchorage for the start of a three-day visit, bringing the American leader up close to shrinking glaciers, Arctic temperatures and a mix of messy energy politics. His tour of the nation’s largest state is closely choreographed to call attention to the ways Obama says climate change is already damaging Alaska’s stunning scenery.
Showing solidarity with Alaska Natives, Obama announced Sunday that his administration would rename Mount McKinley as Denali, its traditional Athabascan name. Alaska’s governor and congressional delegation praised the long-sought change. But stripping the mountain of its name honoring former President William McKinley, a son of Ohio, drew loud condemnations from Ohio lawmakers.
“This political stunt is insulting to all Ohioans, and I will be working with the House Committee on Natural Resources to determine what can be done to prevent this action,” added Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio.
Added House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, “I’m deeply disappointed in this decision.”
In renaming 20,320-foot mountain, Obama was recognizing the moniker Alaskans have informally used for centuries. The name means “the high one” in Athabascan.
The peak, which is growing at about a millimeter a year, was named Mount McKinley in 1896 by a prospector exploring mountains in central Alaska, the White House said. Upon hearing the news that McKinley was the Republican presidential nominee, the prospector named it after him. The name was then formally recognized.
Obama’s excursion north of the Arctic Circle will make him the first sitting president to step foot in the Alaska Arctic, home to Alaska Natives. They’ve received less attention than others amid Obama’s recent efforts to improve conditions for Native Americans.
Yet the primary focus on the trip is global warming.
By showcasing thawing permafrost, melting sea ice and eroding shorelines, Obama hopes the trip will underscore the urgency to combat climate change in the U.S. and overseas. But in Alaska, that message has been met with skepticism by leaders of a state that is heavily dependent on oil revenues that have fallen precipitously.
At the same time, environmental groups argued in the lead-up to Obama’s trip that he hadn’t done enough to protect Alaska and the climate. They took particular offense at his administration’s decision just a few weeks ago to give Royal Dutch Shell a final permit for expanded drilling off Alaska’s northwest coast.
“I share people’s concerns about offshore drilling. I remember the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico all too well,” Obama said in his weekly address. But the economy, he said, still relies on oil and gas while it transitions to cleaner renewable fuels. He said his administration was minimizing the risks.
Obama will touch down in Anchorage in the afternoon. He’ll then hear from Alaska Natives before speaking at the climate-focused Arctic summit, which involves leaders from Arctic and non-Arctic nations. Setting the stage on Sunday night, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Alaska that climate change skeptics won’t be remembered kindly.
Obama and Kerry are seeking a global climate treaty this December, bolstering the president’s environmental legacy before leaving office. Obama has pledged a U.S. cut in greenhouse gas emissions of up to 28 percent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels, and planned to use the Alaska visit to press other nations to commit to similarly ambitious measures.
On Tuesday, Obama will embark on a camera-friendly boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park and hike to Exit Glacier. The sprawling expanse of ice is retreating, and environmentalists cite it as a dramatic sign of warming temperatures. He’ll then trek through wilderness while being taped for an episode of the NBC show “Running Wild with Bear Grylls,” which tests celebrities on their survival skills.
The visit continues Wednesday in Dillingham, in southwest Alaska, where Obama will meet with fishermen locked in an ongoing conflict with miners over plans to build a massive gold and copper mine in Bristol Bay, home to the world’s largest salmon fishery. Then he will fly north to Kotzebue, a regional hub in the Alaska Arctic, to focus on the plight of rural, native villages threatened by encroaching climate change.