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From Never Again To Again: Politics Trump Environmental Concerns About Mount Rushmore Fireworks

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Fireworks over Mount Rushmore during a past Fourth of July show.
South Dakota Tourism

Environmental concerns kept Fourth of July fireworks away from Mount Rushmore for the past 11 years, but now they’re coming back, because a governor talked to a president.

President Donald Trump made that clear Jan. 15 while signing a trade deal with China. A crowd of dignitaries was on hand, and Trump took time to recognize some of them.

When he introduced South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Trump launched into a story about teaming up with her – not on trade, but on bringing fireworks back to Mount Rushmore this summer. He said bogus concerns about fires and the environment were the only things standing in the way.

“I said, ‘What can burn? It’s stone.’ You know, it’s stone,” Trump said. “So nobody knew why. They just said ‘environmental reasons.’ So I called up our people, and within about 15 minutes, we got it approved, and you’re going to have your first big fireworks display at Mount Rushmore, and I’ll try and get out there if I can.”

Trump’s assertion that “nobody knew why” the fireworks ended was wrong. Plenty of people knew why. The fireworks were starting fires, spreading litter and polluting water.

1998: The beginning

Dan Wenk is a former superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Memorial. He approved the fireworks when they started in 1998, and he knows why they ended after 2009.

“Everybody knows why they were stopped,” Wenk said. “It’s the condition of the forest. There is more than stone. It’s in the middle of a national forest. There are things there that can burn. The question is, can you mitigate the potential adverse effects?”

For Wenk, back in 1998, the answer to that question was yes.

A $60 million project to improve the buildings and grounds at Mount Rushmore was almost finished. A celebration was planned, and somebody suggested fireworks. There hadn’t been a fireworks show at Mount Rushmore in 59 years.

The idea was not universally supported. Wenk says his chief ranger tried to talk him out of it.

“He came up to me one day, as a good chief ranger should, and said, ‘You know, should I sit here and tell you all the reasons we shouldn’t do fireworks here at Mount Rushmore? Or have you made the decision?’” Wenk said. “Basically, at the end of the conversation, I said, ‘You know, I think we’re gonna do ’em, Mike. Let’s figure out how to do ’em safely, and how to do it effectively, you know, have a great event, do it safely, protect the mountain, protect the forest and protect the visitors.’”

Another naysayer was Bill Gabbert. He was the fire management officer for seven Park Service sites, including Mount Rushmore. He’s now retired, and he writes a blog called Wildfire Today. On that blog, he has written that shooting fireworks in July over the Black Hills National Forest surrounding Mount Rushmore was “an insane concept.”

He reiterated that sentiment in an interview with SDPB.

“I did not think it was a good idea to ignite fireworks over the ponderosa pine forest, because of the danger of ignition of fires,” Gabbert said. “But I got outvoted in my opinion and my expert advice.”

So the 1998 show went ahead. About 20,000 people crammed into and around the memorial. Traffic was backed up for miles. A Pennsylvania company, Zambelli Fireworks, put on a spectacular display.

By the time the smoke cleared, Wenk knew a tradition was born.

“You know the people at Zambelli, who did it, who’ve done fireworks across the country and the world, said it was one of the most patriotic shows they’d ever seen,” Wenk said. “You know, just the place and the way it was done. And so there was a lot of interest in doing it again.”

Fire problems

Over the next few summers, there were some problems. Glowing embers floated down and started fires in the forest.

Gabbert said 60 to 80 firefighters had to be stationed around the mountain for every show. They roamed the rocky terrain, carrying 5-gallon bags of water on their backs, along with shovels and tools called Pulaskis, which look like pick-axes. When they saw a fire, they put it out.

None of the fires burned out of control. But they tempted fate.

One year, there were about 10 fires. That experience is burned into Wenk's memory, because the next morning, he got a phone call from his boss in the Park Service.

“And he said, ‘So I hear you had some fires.’ And I said, ‘Yes we did.’ His name was Bill, and I just said, ‘Bill, I’m ready to not do these ever again.’” Wenk recalled. “And he said to me, ‘Don’t be so fast. You know, do an after-action review, figure out what went right, what went wrong, and make a decision based on all the information.’”

Wenk did the review. But he didn’t stop the fireworks. Instead, he developed a set of go/no-go criteria. The criteria included factors like moisture levels and weather, to help estimate the fire risk in any given year. From that point on, the fireworks could be called off right up to an hour before the show.

Wenk left Rushmore for another job at the end of 2001. In 2002, the fireworks show was canceled because of fire danger. But the shows continued after that.

In 2003, the National Park Service did an environmental assessment. The assessment said the best thing for the environment was to stop the fireworks shows. But the Park Service decided to continue them anyway. The agency said it could manage the environmental problems.

The Park Service issued an internal report in 2009 that said many of the agency's own past practices with the fireworks shows violated national fire codes and standards, as well as state and federal laws and Park Service policies.

Then, in 2010, the show was canceled again. A mountain pine beetle epidemic was killing millions of trees in the Black Hills National Forest. The dead timber was potential fuel for wildfires. The fireworks were deemed too risky.

Water pollution, litter

Around that same time, the National Park Service was using a pesticide to protect trees at Mount Rushmore from the beetles. Park Service officials wanted to make sure the pesticide wasn’t getting in their water supply. So they asked the U.S. Geological Survey to do a study.

Galen Hoogestraat worked on the study. He didn’t find any pesticide in the water, but he did find a chemical compound called perchlorate.

“It’s not really a common thing to occur naturally, especially in our geology,” Hoogestraat said. “So, just the presence of it – any concentration in the Black Hills – is somewhat of a headscratcher to think about, ‘Well how did it get there?’”

One possible source was the dynamite used to carve Mount Rushmore decades ago. But Hoogestraat says the dynamite didn’t contain perchlorate. The only other possible culprit was the fireworks.

When the water study was published in 2016, there was no official EPA limit on perchlorate in drinking water. But the interim benchmark was 15 micrograms per liter. A median level of 23 was found in a Mount Rushmore well.

That was concerning, but Hoogestraat says it wasn’t an emergency, because the public doesn’t have much exposure to Mount Rushmore’s drinking water.

“It’s more of a risk if somebody was to be drinking that water year-round,” Hoogestraat said. “If somebody’s only filling up a 1-liter water bottle once a summer, it’s not much of a risk.”

The EPA has since proposed a higher official limit for perchlorate, at 56 micrograms per liter. The National Park Service has continued to monitor perchlorate in its wells at Mount Rushmore, and officials said testing in 2019 showed levels of 14 to 16 micrograms per liter.

Besides the water pollution, there’s also a litter problem. Cheryl Schreier was the superintendent of Rushmore from 2010 until she retired last year. She said paper and other debris from the exploded fireworks shells is a chronic problem.

“I’ll be honest, it’s no secret, there is fireworks debris that is still being picked up from 2009," Schreier said.

For Schreier and her bosses in the Park Service, after the fires, the water pollution and the litter, enough was enough. They held off on fireworks every year after 2009 and eventually reached a consensus.

“Fireworks were not going to be a part of Mount Rushmore any further,” Schreier said.

Noem and Trump

That didn’t sit well with people in South Dakota’s tourism industry. Footage of the fireworks at Mount Rushmore was aired all over the world every Fourth of July. It was free advertising, and they wanted it back.

After Trump’s election in 2016, at the urging of South Dakota Tourism Secretary Jim Hagen, then-Gov. Dennis Daugaard sent Trump a letter asking for help bringing fireworks back to the memorial. But the effort went nowhere.

Gov. Kristi Noem speaks with Vice President Mike Pence and President Donald Trump in December at the White House. (Courtesy Governor's Office)

Daugaard was term-limited in 2018 and was succeeded by Kristi Noem, who knew Trump from her prior time as a U.S. representative. After she was elected governor, she went to a White House meeting with other governors. They all told the president what they were working on, and Noem talked about tax reform and trade agreements.

“And then off the cuff at the end said, ‘You know we lost our fireworks years ago at Mount Rushmore. So if you could help us get those back, that’d be great,’” Noem recalled.

That got Trump’s attention.

"And he ever since then has kind of, I don’t know, taken the bull by the horns, you know, been passionate about it,” Noem said.

In May, Noem announced that the state and federal government had an agreement. They were working together to bring fireworks back to Mount Rushmore this summer.

Federal law requires an environmental assessment before that can happen. That assessment is under way now.

Assessment in progress

State and federal officials involved in the assessment say fireworks are safer these days, and they can be made with fewer perchlorates. So far, though, it’s unknown if the fireworks used at Rushmore will have fewer perchlorates than in the past.

Officials also say they might shoot the fireworks from a different location atop the mountain, so more of the perchlorate falls away from water sources.

To lower the fire risk, the Park Service has been clearing out dead trees and other dead or dry vegetation around the memorial. The Park Service might also do a controlled burn, to clear out even more potential tinder. And officials are developing a set of go/no-go criteria, so the show can be cancelled if conditions are too dangerous.

The fireworks show is scheduled for the night of July 3. Attendance limits might be imposed, but those details have not yet been released. State government will hire a company to do the display and a crew to film it.

A request for fireworks vendor proposals published by the state includes a report prepared in November for the National Park Service by fireworks expert Charles Weeth. He wrote that the memorial "is one of the more challenging venues one could pick for a fireworks display. The fact that it is a rocky mountain in a forest alone is enough of a challenge, but the many other variables, from the potential discharge sites at multiple elevations, to the angles needed to shoot bursting fireworks above the carvings, makes it incredibly complex."

He also wrote that fireworks, especially stars that burn between 1,472 and 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit, "can and will easily ignite even the greenest of vegetation."

Nevertheless, Weeth concluded that a fireworks show can be safely and legally conducted at Mount Rushmore.

If everything goes according to plan, people everywhere will wake up on the Fourth of July, turn on their TVs or smartphones, and see highlights of fireworks exploding in color over the Shrine of Democracy.

Rob Wallace is an assistant secretary in the Interior Department, which oversees the Park Service. He said the show can be done responsibly.

“I’ve just seen videos of the fireworks over Mount Rushmore in the past. It’s an inspirational sight,” Wallace said. “It’s going to make every American proud of not only the monument but the Fourth of July celebration and who we are as a nation. It’s going to be a wonderful show.”

The South Dakota House of Representatives has passed a resolution inviting the president to the show. It remains to be seen whether he’ll attend.