How to Name a Mountain After Ronald Reagan

If this activist gets his way, there will be a Mount Reagan in Nevada, possibly as soon as next year. But it hasn't been easy.

Associated Press

Chuck Muth imagines a world where Las Vegas tourists could take a patriotic break from gambling and Cirque du Soleil for a side trip to Mount Reagan.

Muth, a Nevada activist and former executive director of the American Conservative Union, is spearheading the effort to get a Las Vegas-area peak named after the late president and right-wing hero. The initiative is part of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, a push to memorialize the former president as widely as possible that's backed by anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, who is an old friend of Muth's. The sometimes-controversial effort has gotten more than 3,000 landmarks named for the Gipper, including highways, buildings, and schools -- but never a mountain. While 12 other presidents have U.S. mountains named for them, and FDR has a peak in Canada, getting approval for Mount Reagan has proved unexpectedly difficult.

Muth has been working on the proposal for more than a decade, and now he believes it is finally close to succeeding. In an interview, Muth and I discussed whether this mountain is grand enough for Reagan, why the "Mount Reagan" in New Hampshire doesn't count, and how Mark Twain ran afoul of Smokey Bear. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Why do this?

In 1997, Grover Norquist started the Reagan Legacy Project with the intention of having something named after Ronald Reagan in all 50 states. I moved back to Las Vegas in 2009 and discovered there was nothing named for Reagan in Nevada. Talking to [other activists], one beer led to another, and we thought, we've got plenty of mountains here -- why don't we try to name a mountain after Reagan?

That was four years ago. What happened?

What we didn't know was all the bureaucratic speed bumps we would encounter along the way. There is a Board on Geographic Names that has to agree to any naming of natural features -- first the Nevada board, then the national board has to approve it. First we thought about renaming Boundary Peak, on the California border. It's the tallest peak in the state, it's got a totally generic name -- who could possibly object? But it turned out there was an objection. The county commissioners in Esmeralda County said, "It's always been named Boundary Peak." They weren't willing to change it.

So we went to the Mount Charleston area [in the Spring Mountains northwest of Las Vegas] and tried to find a significant, appropriate peak that wasn't already named, but we couldn't. And then we found out you can't name something new in a wilderness area. So the project kind of died off. We let it slide.

When did you restart the project?

One day recently, I was driving home with my daughter to our house near Sunrise Mountain, and she said, "You know, actually, it's not Sunrise Mountain. It's Frenchman Mountain." Everyone in Las Vegas calls it Sunrise Mountain, but technically that's not the name. That sparked an idea -- this one's already misnamed; let's just unofficially start calling it Mount Reagan on our own and not worry about getting the federal government's permission.

Last August, I mentioned to [local conservative radio host] Alan Stock that we ought to start informally calling it Mount Reagan. But then we found out the peak of Sunrise Mountain was actually unnamed -- not the whole mountain, just the summit portion. So we might be able to officially name the peak, and then we would have the only official Mount Reagan in the country.

It seems like quite an ordeal to get a mountain named.

Yeah, they'll let you name something that's not already named, but they don't tend to change the names of things unless they're offensive, like Jewfish Creek or Negro Mountain.

Wait, are those real? Is the government actively policing our geographical features for political correctness?

Oh, yeah. Jewfish Creek is in Florida, Negro Mountain is in Pennsylvania. There are active efforts to change those. I guess we could have tried to make the argument that Frenchman Mountain is offensive, but we didn't want to go there.

Frenchman Mountain, by the way, is actually named after a scam artist -- a guy named Paul Watelet who fleeced settlers by filing false mining claims. And he wasn't even French, he was Belgian.

We learned all kinds of interesting history researching this project. For example, Ronald Reagan was a marquee performer on the Las Vegas Strip for two weeks in 1954. He owed back taxes to the IRS and needed the money. He also filmed a World War II propaganda film with Burgess Meredith at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada [The Rear Gunner, 1943]. Now, if you want to commemorate a natural feature for someone with a national or international reputation, they do not have to have a direct connection to that feature. Reagan clearly fits that bill, so we didn't have to establish that he had a connection to the Las Vegas area. But since the connection was there, we figured it couldn't hurt to document it.

What does the process entail?

We had to fill out an application -- naturally, no federal bureaucracy operates without lots of forms to fill out. We submitted it [Wednesday, the 102nd anniversary of Reagan's birth] to the Nevada Board on Geographic Names. They will have a hearing in Reno on March 14. In the meantime, they'll reach out to other agencies -- the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the Clark County Commission -- to find out if there are any legitimate objections to the proposal. If there's no substantial opposition, they could vote as early as September to approve it, and then it would be sent the the federal Board on Geographic Names.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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