The National Park Service reversed a prior decision when it announced last week that Coon Lake, in Washington’s North Cascades National Park, should be renamed Howard Lake.
Although the change has not yet been made, the announcement is an important development in a long-standing struggle by activists to change the lake’s name. Advocates of the name change supported a change to Howard Lake in honor of Wilson Howard, who was one of only two African Americans to stake claims on the land during the area’s late-19th-century prospecting rush.
Although the state of Washington changed the name in 2007, after a Seattle resident petitioned the state government, the National Park Service recommended to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names in 2009 that the lake name not be changed. This prompted fifty state senators, led by progressive activist Pramila Jayapal (a state sentator who represents a large poriton of Seattle) to petitition federal legislators to change the name this past September.
Jayapal spoke to Seattle public radio outlet KUOW on Friday regarding the National Park Service’s change of heart and its importance to communities of color:
Names matter. They matter a lot, because they say something to a person immediately about whether that person is welcomed or not, how that person is seen.
We know that the National Park Service and the national parks, which are such an amazing treasure for so many, are not being utilized enough by communities of color. …When you go to a lake and you see a name that is clearly derogatory that no one would ever say to your face, you don’t want to go there.
In a statement, the Park Service said that it was in the wrong for the 2009 recommendation, and that a new one will go to the Board on Geographic Names soon.