Movement to name peak for Denver is Rocky Mountain low for opponents

ASSOCIATED PRESS
John Denver wrote "Rocky Mountain High" while camping on the southern edge of Mount Sopris, seen here in 2004. Some say it's not legal to name a peak for him because it's in a wilderness area.ASSOCIATED PRESS John Denver wrote “Rocky Mountain High” while camping on the southern edge of Mount Sopris, seen here in 2004. Some say it’s not legal to name a peak for him because it’s in a wilderness area.
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DENVER — Not everyone is “Rocky Mountain high” on the movement to name a Colorado mountain peak after the late singer John Denver.

Thousands of Coloradans have signed a petition to name the eastern peak of Mount Sopris near Carbondale after the popular singer, whose 1972 hit “Rocky Mountain High” is one of Colorado’s two official state songs.

The petition organizer, J.P. McDaniel of Littleton, announced last week that she had turned in an application for the proposed John Denver Peak, along with more than 2,800 signatures, to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.

Putting Denver’s name on the map may be tougher than anticipated, however. The peak lies in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area, and the board frowns on adding new names to wilderness areas, said board Executive Secretary Lou Yost.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 states that a wilderness area is recognized as one “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,” and Mr. Yost said the board “feels that extends to naming new features in wilderness areas.”

“The board felt [after the act was passed] that naming new features might detract from the wilderness experience,” Mr. Yost said. “Very few new names have been applied to wilderness areas.”

He added that the board will consider exceptions in the cases of, for example, safety, education or “an overriding need.”

So far the board has not received the application for the proposed John Denver Peak, Mr. Yost said.

The peak does have a John Denver connection: The singer-songwriter wrote “Rocky Mountain High” while camping at Williams Lake, which lies on the southeastern edge of Mount Sopris. Ms. McDaniel, who knew Denver, has said he was inspired by a meteor that flew across the sky that night, hence the lyric, “I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky.”

That song may or may not fulfill one of the requirements for naming a geographic feature after an individual, which is that the person “must have a direct and long-term association with the feature or a significant contribution to the area or state in which it is located.”

The peak also can be seen from the Windstar Land Conservancy, a plot of 1,000 acres of farmland and wilderness that Denver bought in 1978 and that continues to be maintained by the Windstar Foundation, which he co-founded.

The petition in favor of naming the peak after Denver emphasizes his dedication to conserving and protecting the environment.

John Denver contributed much to enrich many lives,” the petition says. “His timeless music brings enjoyment to people worldwide; his numerous humanitarian projects continue to bring about positive changes; and his passionate environmental and conservation efforts remain significant.”

Despite Denver’s iconic status in Colorado, there has been some backlash to the proposal.

A Facebook page, “Don’t Name Mt. Sopris After John Denver,” has attracted more than 150 “friends” and raised the ire of Carbondalers, who point out that the peak is nearer to Carbondale than Aspen, where Denver made his home for 30 years.

John Denver had nothing to do with Carbondale. Please name one of the many mountains around Aspen after him (which would be much more appropriate),” says one recent post.

An Aspen Times online poll found 74 percent of respondents against the initiative and 26 percent in favor. The results of an online poll by KDNK-FM in Carbondale were similar, with 76 percent voting no on John Denver Peak and 13 percent saying yes. Both surveys were unscientific and had fewer than 1,000 respondents between them.

The mountain is named after Richard Sopris, a Civil War-era Denver mayor who led a prospecting expedition to the mountain. Its two unnamed peaks are generally referred to as Mount Sopris. The petitions stress that the proposal is to apply the name “John Denver” to one of the peaks, not to change the name of the mountain.

Mr. Yost said the board receives 300 to 350 name-change requests each year and approves as many as 85 percent, but that percentage falls to the low single digits when it comes to wilderness areas.

“We’ll get proposals and send them back, asking, ‘What is the overriding argument to do it?’ Lots of times people say ‘Forget it,’ and we never hear from them again,” Mr. Yost said.

An individual must be dead for at least five years before a U.S. geographic feature can be named for him or her. Denver died in 1997 when an experimental aircraft he was piloting crashed into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. He was 53.

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