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Name change considered for Ohio's Wayne National Forest

A sign reading "Forest Headquarters and Athens Ranger Station, Wayne National Forest" sits in front of a visitor center.
Allie Vugrincic
A sign at Wayne National Forest's Athens Ranger Station on U.S. Route 33 in Nelsonville is among many that would have to be replaced if Ohio's only national forest undergoes a proposed name change to "Buckeye National Forest." The forest is currently named for General Anthony Wayne, who played an important role in several Revolutionary War battles but is best known for removing American Indians from Ohio.

Ohio’s only national forest might soon have a new name.

Wayne National Forest is named for Anthony Wayne, a decorated Revolutionary War general with a complicated history that includes the removal of American Indians from Ohio.

The patchwork of public forest spans over a quarter million acres of Appalachian foothills in southeastern Ohio.

Lee Stewart, Forest Supervisor at Wayne National Forest, said the forest has officially been called Wayne National for more than 70 years. Before that, the forest was referred to by a number of unofficial names, including Ohio National Forest, Ohio Purchase Units, or Wayne Hoosier National Forest, as it was at one point administratively linked to Hoosier National Forest in Indiana.

Now, the U.S. Forest Service is proposing renaming the area the “Buckeye National Forest.”

Stewart said the name change comes on the heels of two recent orders from the Secretary of the Interior’s office addressing derogatory or offensive geographic names and formal requests from American Indian tribes who find the name offensive. He added that tribes — who were the first stewards of the forest — have been unhappy with the name for years.

A narrow dirt path cuts through a forest
Allie Vugrincic
Bailey's Bike Trail cuts through the forest near Utah Ridge Pond in Wayne National Forest.

Who was Anthony Wayne?

As part of the Continental Army, General Anthony Wayne and his troops played an important role in several Revolutionary War battles, including the Battle of Brandywine in Philadelphia and the Battle of Monmouth. He is sometimes listed among America’s founding fathers.

But the Pennsylvanian who earned the nickname “Mad Anthony” for his fiery personality and aggressive tactics is perhaps most well-known for his success in the Northwest Indian War. He defeated American Indians and Canadians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers near present-day Maumee, Ohio, according to the National Parks Service.

In the resulting Treaty of Greenville, tribes ceded most of what would become Ohio and parts of Indiana, Illinois and Michigan, so American settlers could move into the Northwest Territory.

Wayne’s troops then marched on British Fort Miami, but unwilling to attack and cause a conflict with the British, his men burned American Indian towns and crops in the area.

Around 40 modern-day tribes have ancestral ties to Ohio.

The U.S. Forest Service said members of the Delaware Tribe, Shawnee Tribe, Absentee-Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma and Miami Tribe of Oklahoma helped choose the name “Buckeye” for the forest.

“Of course, that's what they wanted named after the state tree, as they felt it was appropriate for National Forest to be named after its state tree,” Stewart said.

The Miami Tribe of Oklahoma in a statement said Wayne is celebrated as a hero for his “brutal and deadly campaigns against the Tribes whose lands and people he was sent to conquer.”

“Though Wayne’s goal was to conquer enemy territory and carve out Ohio from a ‘rugged wilderness,’ the forests of Ohio had been carefully stewarded for their entire history by the Indigenous people who have lived in Ohio and beyond since time immemorial. Wayne may be a Revolutionary War hero to some, but he is also the main villain in our story of resistance, trying to keep our homes and maintain our lives,” reads the statement from Miami Tribe of Oklahoma’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Logan York.

York said that the name Buckeye National Forest shows respect to those who first called the area home and celebrates Ohio for all Ohioans.

A canopy of evergreen trees is seen from below.
Allie Vugrincic
A canopy of coniferous trees near Utah Ridge Pond in Wayne National Forest is seen from below.

Public Discourse

The rename is not a done deal. Many residents of Nelsonville and The Plains oppose the change, noting that it has been called that all of their lives and people would likely still call it that even after an official name change.

Robert Ryan of Nelsonville said he’s tired of everything being “politically correct.”

Ruth Jones, visiting Nelsonville from Parkersburg, West Virginia, says it seems like everybody wants to erase history.

“Good or bad. Just leave it the way it is,” she said. “But educate people, you know, use it as an educational tool. If it's offensive to natives because of what happened there, use it as an educational tool.”

And U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) wrote in a statement that the rename “represents a lack of fidelity to our nation’s founding generation.” Other state officials have also joined the conversation.

But Hocking College student Jack Byers, who lives in Nelsonville and is studying to become a naturalist, says he supports the name change. He said it doesn’t benefit anyone to have natural areas named after "people who did bad things.”

“It’s not erasing history. History is in books,” Byers added.

Comments on the U.S. Forest Service - Wayne National Forest Service Facebook page range from "Stop erasing history!!!!!" to suggestions for different names and praise for the change.

Forest Supervisor Stewart said he thinks it's good public discourse.

“Ohio has thousands of years of history. The history here is very, very deep prehistory into historic times where Wayne occupies his space and then all of the – the history after that."
Lee Stewart, Forest Supervisor at Wayne National Forest

Cost and value

The cost of renaming the forest is estimated at about $400,000 – most of which would go to replacing signs, the U.S. Forest Service said. Stewart added that names would be changed on maps through the regular reprinting cycle and that the only part of the Forest Service uniform that includes the name “Wayne” is employees’ nametags.

“When you look at the social value and the equity value of changing that name, that outweighs any financial cost,” said Athens Mayor Steve Patterson, who has been advocating for the name change.

He said Ohioans can’t fail to acknowledge the past.

“The name Anthony Wayne or Wayne National Forest carries with it, you know, so much pain at the end of the day for what had happened to our indigenous tribes here in the state of Ohio,” Patterson said.

While he’s for a name change, he said “Buckeye” is not his first choice – it mostly makes him think of his neighbors to the north, he joked, referencing The Ohio State University Buckeyes.

Patterson said he’d prefer one of the other suggestions posed by the U.S. Forest Service – “Koteewa National Forest” or “Ohio National Forest” – or another idea, “Pawpaw National Forest,” for the state's native fruit.

A man speaks in a clearing near a forest.
Allie Vugrincic
Lee Stewart, Forest Supervisor at Wayne National Forest, talks about the U.S. Forest Service's proposal to change the forest's name to "Buckeye National Forest," after American Indian tribes formally said they were offended by the name honoring Revolutionary War General Anthony Wayne.

A rare moment

As public comment ends, the U.S. Forest Service will make a recommendation to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, who can officially change the name.

“It’s a rare moment. It’s a rare project to rename a national forest,” Forest Supervisor Stewart said.

Stewart said the last time a national forest was renamed was in 2007 in Puerto Rico. Then-President George W. Bush renamed the Caribbean National Forest as El Yunque National Forest by executive order.

Stewart said, however, a rename is an opportunity to heal and connect to something deeper.

“Ohio has thousands of years of history. The history here is very, very deep prehistory into historic times where Wayne occupies his space and then all of the history after that,” he said.

Stewart said if the Secretary of Agriculture goes forward with a name change, it could be just a matter of months before the actual renaming takes place.

Allie Vugrincic has been a radio reporter at WOSU 89.7 NPR News since March 2023.