Geographic Names

The Office of Policy represents the NPS on the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN) and provides Service-wide guidance and coordination on naming of geographic features in national parks.


The authority to approve official names for geographic features within the United States and its territories and possessions—including features in units of the national park system—lies with the BGN.

Created over 125 years ago, the BGN establishes and maintains uniform geographic name usage by the federal government. It is also responsible for foreign and undersea geographic features and features in Antarctica. The BGN is composed of primary and deputy representatives of federal agencies having an interest in the subject of geographic names. BGN approval is required before any proposed change or correction to an official name, and any proposal to name an unnamed feature, can be used on fFederal publications and products, including maps, signs, and printed or digital materials. Most states have a state geographic names authority. These entities are responsible for conducting research about name proposals at the local and state level and making recommendations to the BGN on behalf of the state.

Most naming issues of interest to the NPS are decided by the BGN’s Domestic Names Committee (DNC). The DNC deals with naming proposals in the 50 states, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories and possessions, including proposals within units of the national park system. Before the DNC votes on a proposal, BGN staff consults with local governments, the appropriate state names authority, any interested Native American groups, and all relevant land-managing agencies, such as the NPS.

The Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) is the repository for official and variant names.

NPS Representation

The NPS’s Deputy Member on the DNC is Mike Shelton, Senior Program Analyst in the Office of Policy.

Appointed by the Secretary of the Interior, the Deputy Member:

  • provides Service-wide guidance on geographic naming policies and procedures;
  • handles correspondence and coordinates with park and regional office staff on geographic naming proposals that affect NPS areas;
  • renders the official NPS opinion on name proposals for units of the national park system; and
  • attends monthly meetings of the DNC, as well as quarterly meetings of the full BGN.

To ensure geographic name proposals are processed efficiently, regional directors are asked to designate an individual to serve as a regional geographic names coordinator. This designation, and any changes to it, should be provided to the Deputy Member.

On occasion, park or regional representatives are asked to serve as consultants and provide input to state names authorities, particularly when the geographic feature in question is within a park unit. We encourage this cooperation, which should be coordinated with the Deputy Member.

Policies and Procedures

The DNC’s decisions are guided by its Principles, Policies, and Procedures (PPP) for naming geographic features.

NPS officials and representatives must take the PPP—and the Park Service’s Staff Directive 80-4: Geographic Name Proposals—into account when proposing geographic names or when evaluating or commenting on names proposed by others.

Geographic Naming Principles

Some key principles to be familiar with are listed below.

Information about Secretary’s Order 3404

On November 19, 2021, Secretary Haaland issued Secretary’s Order No. 3404, declaring the word “sq___” derogatory and directing its removal from all geographic feature names. This includes features in national parks. The Order also establishes a Task Force (not yet activated) to recommend replacement names to the BGN.

Some NPS managers and staff have expressed interest in being proactive on this matter. Order No. 3404 does not preclude the NPS from going ahead and submitting replacement name proposals to the BGN. Nor does it specify any particular replacement names. Any actions the NPS takes may result in changing names sooner and could reduce the Task Force’s workload. In fact, the BGN's Domestic Names Committee continues to make decisions on existing proposals to change “sq___” names.

Before taking steps to change any of these geographic feature names in parks, superintendents should consult the NPS Deputy Member and their regional geographic names coordinator. They can answer questions and provide guidance about the process.

Contact Information

Please direct your questions about NPS geographic names to Mike Shelton at e-mail us.

Last updated: February 7, 2023