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Battle Lines Drawn over John Denver Peak Proposal

Photo by Kirk Siegler
At almost 13,000 feet, Mt Sopris is one of the Roaring Fork Valley's most known and visited peaks.

Depending on who you talk to, folk singer and environmentalist John Denver was either revered or reviled in Colorado.  And a petition circulating to name a mountain peak near Aspen after him is reopening the debate about his legacy in the Rocky Mountain state. For the record, John Denver is not a native Coloradan.  Henry John Deutschendorf was born in Roswell, New Mexico into a military family that moved around a lot.

But as a nature lover, he started coming here a lot and writing songs starting in the late sixties.

Changing his name and quickly becoming Colorado’s adopted son, he was named the state’s poet laureate. In posh Aspen, a prime stretch of riverfront real estate was designated the John Denver Sanctuary after he died in a plane crash. It was a few miles west and a few thousand feet above Aspen at Williams Lake on the slope of Mount Sopris, where legend has it he penned the lyrics to his most famous tune, now an official Colorado state song.

“It’s a Colorado Rocky Mountain High, I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky," Denver sings.

Now a friend and former colleague of Denver’s, J.P McDaniel of Littleton wants to do more than memorialize those famous words.  She's proposing to name the east peak of Mt Sopris, which is currently officially unnamed, after the folk singer.

McDaniel says her effort is meant to honor his environmental work and the mark he left on the state.

"To the state, to the region, John Denver is part of our history here, in the minds of people, in the hearts of people and geographically," McDaniel says.

McDaniel must demonstrate all of that and more to a skeptical federal board that rarely approves such petitions in wilderness areas like the one Mt Sopris lies in. 

Still, McDaniel thinks the historical argument is an easy one; John Denver, she says, epitomizes Colorado. 

True enough, for many baby boomers looking to move West in the seventies, he was a big draw.

"For thirty years now, when people ask me, why did you move to Colorado, my answer has always been the call of John Denver," says Ron Laughery, a columnist with the Boulder Daily Camera

Laughery says John Denver’s songs hit the charts at a time when California was filling up, and for better or worse, they put scenic Colorado on the map. 

That’s one of the reasons why the peak naming proposal is stirring up some old wounds.  Some here think all those quaint folk songs caused Colorado to become over developed and too glitzy.  After all, John Denver’s Starwood property in Aspen was the beginning of one of the country’s most exclusive communities.  Others like Lou Dawson think his credibility as an environmentalist is over-hyped. 

"What I oppose is causing confusion and going against local tradition and what’s on the maps and so forth and basically renaming a peak," says Dawson, a long-time mountaineer turned blogger who lives just beneath the shadow of Mt. Sopris in Carbondale.

Dawson says there are other, more suitable peaks nearby.

"There is a very nice peak next to Williams Lake that could be proposed to be named John Denver Peak," Dawson says. "It’s just a peak without a name."

Local opposition is only one obstacle facing backers of the name change. According to the US Board on Geographic Names, which will consider the petition soon, applications for new peak names in wilderness areas are only ever considered for educational reasons, or when the safety of the public is at stake.

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.
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