The Long Road to Pronghorn Hot Springs


Written by Bruce Fisher/Photo by Peter Pearsall

In 2018, when the Oregon Geographic Names Board (OGNB) received a proposal to name a geographic feature in Harney County, the road to approval appeared relatively smooth. However, as the proposal traveled along its road through the OGNB’s careful process, potholes began to appear. The proposal was suddenly in a jeopardy. 

The proposal’s proponent was a USGS hydrologist from the Oregon Water Science Center in Portland, who suggested naming an unnamed hot spring at the southeast margin of Harney Lake and near the boundary of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (MNWR). The proposed name was South Harney Lake Hot Spring, based on a reasonably strong association to nearby Harney Lake. It seemed like a straight road to a name for the hot spring. 

The OGNB meticulously reviews proposals to name geographic features in Oregon, and then forwards proposals—and OGNB’s recommended action—to the United States Board on Geographic Names (USBGN) for final action. The OGNB thus began with conducting background research on the proposed name of “South Harney Lake Hot Spring,” including determining and informing the possible stakeholders. 

That’s when the road became a bumpy. OGNB members found that locals and MNWR staff had referred to the feature for years using the name South Harney Lake Hot Spring. But some guidebooks, various hiking guides, and Oregon springs websites referred to both South Harney Lake Hot Spring and South Harney Lake Hot Springs (plural). The OGNB also found a publication, Harney Lake Research Natural Area FRNA supplement, 1979 by William N. Copeland, that referred to the spring as “Harney Hot Spring.” Finally, the OGNB checked through editions of the USGS Southeast Harney Lake 1:24000 scale quadrangle and found that the feature was labeled only once, as “Springs (Hot),” on the 1980 version of the map. Thus, the OGNB had several competing names and the question whether this feature should be considered singular or plural. More potholes.

The second important part of the OGNB process, stakeholders’ responses, was equally indefinite. Although the MNWR’s response agreed to the proposed name, the Harney County Court offered no opinion, and the Tribes offered no response. Still more potholes.

An OGNB subcommittee meeting in Portland in 2019 reviewed the potholes and discovered yet another. Several OGNB members objected to adding a place name that was an apparent association with Gen. William S. Harney, for two reasons. First, Harney was a controversial Army officer known in Oregon history for commanding horrific treatment of Oregon’s Native people. Second, a database check for Oregon features with “Harney” in their name found eight features, if you include Fort Harney, which is historical. In short, OGNB members were concerned that General Harney was considered offensive to Oregon’s tribes and many Oregon residents. OGNB members have worked decades to remove offensive names, and this was not a time to add another one. 

At this point along the road, the OGNB sought an off-ramp—a counterproposal. The OGNB re-contacted Oregon’s Tribes, including talking directly to the Burns Paiute Tribe. For a time, they considered supporting the name “Antelope Springs.” However, no formal proposal from them ever materialized. Finally, in November 2020, an OGNB member submitted his own proposal suggesting “Pronghorn Hot Springs.” The name, he pointed out, refers to the pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) commonly found in this part of Oregon. The new proposal was sent to the MNWR, the Tribes, and the Harney County Court, explaining that this was a counter-proposal to “South Harney Lake Hot Spring” and that the OGNB sought comments about this new name. The MNWR responded, saying they liked the name. The Harney County Court again had no objections, and the tribes again offered no response. 

One more potential pothole to navigate: The OGNB needed to the original proponent—the USGS hydrologist—to consider withdrawing his proposal after being told of the issues during the OGBN review and the board’s likelihood of not approving the original proposal. He agreed and said he would support the Pronghorn Hot Springs counterproposal. 

In December of 2021, the OGNB voted to approve “Pronghorn Hot Springs” and so recommended to the USBGN for a final decision, and that federal board unanimously approved the name in January 2022. 

After traveling a long, and at times, seemingly pothole-filled road, Pronghorn Hot Springs is now the official name of these springs. The name will appear on federal topographic maps beginning in 2023. 

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