By HELEN DALRYMPLE
Representatives of four U.S. government agencies, several staff members from the U.S. Geological Survey and three guests -- one of whom was from the Federal Agency of Cartography and Geology of Germany -- convened this summer in the Library's Geography and Map Division for the 600th meeting of the Domestic Names Committee of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.
Created in 1947, when the Board on Geographic Names was reorganized, the committee meets monthly and is responsible for standardizing the names of places, features and areas within the 50 states and in other areas under the sovereignty of the United States.
The systematic standardization of geographic names in the United States began late in the 19th century. With the surge of mapping and scientific reporting associated with the exploration, mining and settlement of the Western territories following the Civil War, it became clear that mapmakers and scientists needed to have a uniform, nonconflicting geographical nomenclature in place to avoid confusion among places and names.
President Benjamin Harrison established the U.S. Board on Geographic Names with an executive order on Sept. 4, 1890, with authority to resolve all unsettled questions concerning geographic names. President Theodore Roosevelt extended the board's authority in 1906, giving it the additional power to standardize all geographic names for federal use, including name changes and new names.
At its 600th meeting, chaired by Gerald T. Coghlan of the Department of Agriculture, the committee members approved new names for previously unnamed features; voted to change existing names where local usage had shifted; and deferred a decision on a conflict between two different names pending further research.
The executive secretary of the Domestic Names Committee is provided by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Roger Payne, the current executive secretary, serves as executive secretary to the full Board on Geographic Names (BGN) as well. The current chairman of the BGN, who is appointed by the Secretary of the Interior upon recommendation of the board, is Ronald F. Grim, senior cartographic specialist in the Library's Geography and Map Division.
The Board on Geographic Names may be unique among federal entities in that it has no budget, no staff of its own and relies on other federal agencies for staffing and meeting space. Its members are drawn from other federal agencies and receive no additional compensation for their work on the board. Permanent members come from the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Interior and State, the Library of Congress, the Government Printing Office, the U.S. Postal Service and the Central Intelligence Agency.
Research on the proposals for new names or name changes is prepared by staff members of USGS, part of the Department of Interior. At its summer meeting, Docket 372 proposed a change in the name "Cascade Reservoir" to "Lake Cascade" in the Boise National Forest in Valley County, Idaho. Staff members had contacted the Bureau of Reclamation, which confirmed that current local usage is more frequently "Lake Cascade." The Cascade City Council and the Valley County Board of Commissioners passed resolutions in support of the name change; and the Idaho State Board on Geographic Names and the U.S. Forest Service also approved the proposal.
One of the long-standing principles of the BGN is recognition of present-day local usage. And, as in the above case, local usage may change. The Cascade Dam was built by the Bureau of Reclamation in 1948; early maps labeled the reservoir the "Cascade Dam Reservoir." But by the mid-1950s, the name "Cascade Reservoir" had come into common use. Forty years later, with the renaming of an area park Lake Cascade State Park, local usage has evolved so that the name "Lake Cascade" now makes more sense. The Domestic Names Committee agreed and voted to approve the change.
Four other cases on the docket illustrated another board principle: naming previously unnamed domestic geographic features after deceased individuals long associated with the site, when such names are recommended by local authorities. Thus the committee approved the naming of a lagoon and a bay in Kachemak Bay State Park in Alaska after two individuals who had long lived in the area. In both cases, the recommendation was originally made by a local citizen, the state park agreed and the Alaska State Board on Geographic Names concurred. And two previously unnamed features in Florida are now officially known as "Barley Basin" and "Shands Key" as a result of the committee's action in June.
In another case, the issue of local support was less clear. A fifth-grade class in the state of Washington participated in the Adopt-a-Stream program and studied the environment along an unnamed stream near the school. They decided to ask that the stream be named Haywitch Creek after an American Indian doctor who for many years lived in the Snoqualmie Valley, although there was no evidence that he was specifically associated with the stream in question. A member of the Snoqualmie Tribal Council, who spoke to the students about Haywitch during their research project, endorsed the proposal, as did the full Tribal Council. Other local groups agreed, including eventually the King County Council, but the Washington State Board on Geographic Names initially recommended against the proposal, because of a lack of a strong historical connection of the individual to the feature. Because the State Board's decision was made before it learned of the county's support, USGS staff contacted the board again upon learning of the county's endorsement. The State Board said it would stand by its original recommendation against the name. Taking all of this into account at its summer meeting, the Domestic Names Committee voted to approve the name.
Generally the Domestic Names Committee does not approve of names with hyphens or apostrophes because of the confusion that may result. In approving a name for a waterfall in a remote area along the Tualatin River in Oregon, however, the committee went along with the name "Ki-a-Kuts Falls," honoring the chief of a Kalapuyan Indian tribe who once resided in the area. In fact, the proposal was originally submitted as "Ki-a-Cut Falls" by a local environmental group, but when the proposal was submitted to the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde, they asked that the spelling be changed to that used by the tribe. The original proponent agreed to change the proposed name to conform to the tribal usage, the State Board recommended approval of the name and the Domestic Names Committee concurred.
Observing the deliberations of the Domestic Names Committee for a few hours helps one understand how complex a "simple name" can be -- and how important it is to have a process for standardization. In some cases, local groups may disagree on the appropriate name or spelling of a geographical feature, and the committee must assess the evidence and make a decision. In other cases, state legislation may throw the names of many geographical features into disarray.
In April 1999, for example, the governor of Montana signed legislation to remove the word "squaw" from any geographic features in the state. There are currently 72 features using "squaw" in their name. The legislation directed the state's coordinator of Indian affairs to appoint an advisory committee to develop replacement names and report them to the BGN and other appropriate federal agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service. Because not all of the features are located on Native American lands, the State Board on Geographic Names has urged that all stakeholders play a role in the process at the local level. These name changes will be coming to the board over the next couple of years and will undoubtedly generate a great deal of interest. Minnesota enacted similar legislation in 1995, and it took two years to change only 17 names; and two counties still resist the changes.
All of these geographic names are included in the National Geographic Names Database, part of the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS), which is maintained by USGS in cooperation with the BGN. Some 3 million name records are in the database -- natural features, populated places, civil divisions, areas and regions and cultural features such as mines, churches, schools, cemeteries, hospitals, dams, airports and shopping centers -- and all are considered official for federal use. It is currently being redesigned to make it easier to search. One of the products of GNIS is the National Digital Gazetteer, which is a compact disc (CD-ROM) containing the nation's geographic names. Version five of the CD-ROM, adding almost 100,000 names to the earlier version, was released in December. The GNIS may be accessed on the Web at http://nhd.usgs.gov/gnis.html. The digital gazetteer of the United States (compact disc) may be ordered from the USGS's Earth Science Information Center at 507 National Center, Reston VA 20192, phone (888) ASK-USGS or (703) 648-5920.
So, what's in a name? A great deal -- the history of the land, local lore, decisions by state agencies and hard work on the part of the members of the BGN and the Domestic Names Committee who strive to reconcile local usage with board principles to arrive at the most appropriate names for geographical features that will be used on all federal maps. One should keep this in mind the next time a map is used. There's a reason behind all of those names.
Ms. Dalrymple is senior public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.