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050815-nws-harneydecision (copy)

Harney Peak's summit is 7,242 feet above sea level, making it unarguably the tallest point in South Dakota. But its status as the highest U.S. peak east of the Rocky Mountains is not as secure.

Harney Peak’s distinction as the “highest point in the U.S. east of the Rockies” is as rock-solid to many South Dakotans as the granite at the 7,242-foot summit.

The factoid, or some close variant, is often tucked into news reports about a pending proposal to rename the peak.

Inconveniently for South Dakotans, who don’t top many national lists and treasure rare occurrences when they do, Texans could make the same claim about Guadalupe Peak.

At 8,749 feet, Guadalupe is 1,507 feet taller than Harney, so that part of the debate is easily settled.

It’s that “east of the Rockies” part that gets tricky. Judging by its place on the map, Guadalupe Peak, in far western Texas, could be described as east of the Rockies or part of the Rockies or on the edge of the Rockies.

If Guadalupe Peak is part of the Rockies, it cannot claim a title that includes “east of the Rockies.” But if it’s east of the Rockies, it is the rightful holder of the title Harney Peak claims and South Dakotans boast of.

Eric Brunnemann has a unique perspective on the dispute. As superintendent of Badlands National Park until very recently, he had a view of Harney Peak on the western horizon. At his new job as superintendent of Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas, he has an up-close look at Guadalupe Peak. He also grew up in Texas.

Does he consider Guadalupe Peak to be part of the Rockies?

“When we Texans are feeling really proud ourselves, we say it is,” he said.

Geological sources are similarly conflicted.

A U.S. Geological Survey publication titled “Elevations and Distances in the United States” includes a footnote designating Harney Peak as the “Highest summit east of the Rocky Mtns.”

But John Foster Sawyer, an associate professor of geology and geological engineering at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, said both peaks are arguably part of the same general uplifts that created the Rocky Mountains, so it could be “splitting hairs” to say either peak is geologically separate from the Rockies. In that case, neither would qualify as “east of the Rockies,” and the “highest ... etc.” title would presumably devolve to North Carolina's 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell in the Appalachians.

But a "Who's bigger?" feud with North Carolina can't compare with squaring off against tall-talking Texas.

There is, however, hope for an unequivocal Harney claim, in a tighter definition.

A bronze plaque on Harney Peak’s summit describes it as “the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Pyrenees Mountains of Europe.”

Interpreted in the strictest terms, that description calls to mind a straight line between Harney Peak and the Pyrenees. Along that straight line, there would indeed be no higher point than Harney.

And then there’s the opinion of Kurt Katzenstein, an assistant professor of geology and geological engineering at Mines, who pooh-poohed the entire debate.

“Personally,” he said, “I find it a silly assertion.”

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Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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Enterprise Reporter

Enterprise reporter for the Rapid City Journal and author of "Calvin Coolidge in the Black Hills." Receiving encrypted news tips through Peerio with the user name seth_tupper.