Haaland, Green Introduce Bill to Address Racist Names of Land Units, Geographic Features

September 30, 2020
Press Release

One Pager | Bill Text | Endorsement List 

Washington, D.C. – Today, Congresswoman Deb Haaland (N.M.-01), Vice Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Congressman Al Green, a leader in the Congressional Black Caucus (Tex.-09) introduced legislation to address land units and geographic features with racist names.

Public lands are a part of the fabric of America that are meant to welcome everyone, however thousands of geographic features, national forests, wilderness areas, and other public lands have offensive names that celebrate people who have upheld slavery, committed unspeakable acts against Native Americans, or led Confederate war efforts. Furthermore, many of these landmarks include offensive slurs that degrade people based on their race or background, making many feel unwelcome.

Currently, the United States Board on Geographic Names oversees all naming processes and decisions. While Board policies authorize changing the names of offensive geographic features, the current process is time-consuming, lacks transparency and public involvement, and is ill equipped to address the vast nature of the problem. The Reconciliation in Place Names Act would create an Advisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names, which would make recommendations to the Board on Geographic Names on geographic features to be renamed and recommendations to Congress on renaming Federal land units with offensive names.

“All visitors to public lands deserve to feel welcome and comfortable while enjoying all that nature has to offer them. However, offensive or racist place names are restricting access and prevent many from feeling welcome on lands that belong to all of us. It’s past time to change the offensive names of public lands, especially with input from groups who have been discriminated against. I’m proud to introduce the Reconciliation in Place Names Act with my friend Representative Al Green to make sure our public lands are places where all feel welcome,“ said Congresswoman Deb Haaland, Vice Chair of the Natural Resources Committee.

“I am proud to serve as co-lead for the Reconciliation in Place Names Act with Representative Deb Haaland. Often the names of geographic features reflect shameful intentions that do not represent American values; instead, they highlight the systemic, institutionalized discrimination that must be eliminated from virtually all areas of American life,” said Congressman Al Green (TX-09). “This bill’s creation of an Advisory Committee to recommend to the Board of Geographic Names appropriate names for geographic features takes a much-needed step toward addressing the full extent of invidious discrimination in our nation.”

In 2015, 1,441 federally recognized places were identified as having questionable names. These places range from national forests, streams, and wilderness areas to features within the built  environment such as bridges and monuments. 

Although these sites are for the public regardless of identity, their names often reflect bigoted intentions that do not represent American values and hardly make all visitors feel welcome.

The Reconciliation in Place Names Act would specifically:

  • Create an advisory board composed of individuals with backgrounds in civil rights and race relations, Tribal members and organizations to bring a depth of knowledge and experience to the process.
  • Solicit proposals from Indian tribes, state and local governments, and members of the public, and would provide an opportunity for the public to comment on name change proposals. 
  • Require the advisory board to make recommendations to the Board on Geographic Names on geographic features to be renamed and to Congress on renaming Federal land units with offensive names. 

Progressive environmental organizations, civil rights groups, and various organizations across the Southwest praised the introduction of the Reconciliation in Place Names Act. Full list of supporting organizations is available here.

“Our public lands and waters are often seen as a defining feature of our nation, however, throughout our history, racism, exclusion, oppression, and injustices have traditionally shaped the operations and policies of land management agencies. Even the names of our nation's most visited public lands can feel intimidating or unwelcoming. The Reconciliation in Place Names Act puts traditionally overlooked communities such as communities of color, disabled populations, low-income communities, tribes, pueblos and LGBTQ communities out front.” -Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project

“The landscapes of our public lands are unmatched for their natural beauty, but the official names for many of these places are unmatched for their ugliness — dismissive of or even  offensive to Native Americans and other marginalized groups. If our public lands are truly to be for all people, the names of those places should celebrate the communities who shaped them, not slander them. This bill will not be the final word on establishing racial justice, but it is an important step towards reconciliation, and Sierra Club is happy to endorse it.” -Jackie Ostfeld, Director of Sierra Club’s Outdoors for All campaign

“The Reconciliation in Place Names Act would remove names from public lands that are offensive, racist, and inappropriate, thus helping to ensure that our parks and outdoor spaces are managed in a more equitable and inclusive manner that honors our nation’s diversity. The bill—and the spirit of equity it carries for our public lands—is long overdue. We support this important legislation and commend Congresswoman Haaland and Congressman Green for advancing it.” -Paul Spitler, Director of Wilderness Policy, The Wilderness Society

The bill is co-sponsored by Representatives Nanette Barragan (CA-44), Earl Blumenauer (OR-03), Danny K. Davis (IL-07), Adriano Espaillat (NY-13), Dwight Evans (PA-03), Ruben Gallego (AZ-07), Al Green (TX-09), Pramila Jayapal (WA-07), Barbara Lee (CA-13), Grace Napolitano (CA-32), Jamie Raskins (MD-08), Rashida Tlaib (MI-13), and Ted Lieu (CA-33).

“Painful symbols of bigotry and racism have no place in our society,” said Congresswoman Barbara Lee. “As our nation confronts its legacy of systemic racism, our government has a responsibility to remove names from our public spaces that glorify white supremacy and hate. This bill is an important step forward in dismantling oppression and ensuring that the communities most affected have a say in creating a better future for our country.”

“Removing painful reminders of our country’s disgraceful history of racism and xenophobia is crucial to our progress toward a truly inclusive society,” said Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib. “I am proud to co-sponsor this piece of legislation that will make that possible and thank Congresswoman Haaland for her leadership in its introduction.”