Trump is headlining fireworks at Mount Rushmore. Experts worry two things could spread: virus and wildfire.
National Park Service and local fire marshal officials have warned for years about dangers in resuming fireworks at the memorial.
By Juliet Eilperin, Darryl Fears and Josh Dawsey
Published in The Washington Post – June 25, 2020
President Trump is planning a massive fireworks display at Mount Rushmore on July 3, despite a decade-long ban on pyrotechnics at the iconic spot because of concerns about public health, environmental and safety risks.
Trump has wanted to stage fireworks at the national memorial in South Dakota’s Black Hills since 2018, according to two individuals familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. But the idea was scuttled or delayed by a number of his advisers, these individuals said.
The National Park Service stopped staging pyrotechnics at Mount Rushmore in 2010 out of concern that it could ignite wildfires under drought conditions. The memorial is surrounded by 1,200 acres of forested lands, including ponderosa pines, and lies next to the Black Hills National Forest’s Black Elk Wilderness.
Ian Fury, a spokesman for South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R), said in an email that the National Park Service had concluded the event will not harm the environment and conducted a controlled burn earlier this month to reduce brush that could fuel a wildfire.
“We are confident that the Rushmore Fireworks celebration can be conducted safely,” Fury said, adding that organizers are monitoring weather forecasts. The Interior Department has positioned firefighting resources at the site, according to a senior department official.
Neither federal nor state officials have imposed social distancing requirements as part of the gathering. The state tourism department, which is distributing 7,500 tickets for the event, has estimated that it has had requests for at least 125,000.
One senior Interior official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said the department is following state health guidelines and is taking steps to reflect recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This includes signs throughout the park urging visitors to wear a cloth face covering when it is impossible to keep six feet away from others, and providing face coverings for all of its employees.
South Dakota’s total number of coronavirus cases as of Wednesday, 6,419, far surpasses those of North Dakota — which had 3,362 cases — although their populations are nearly identical. South Dakota’s rate of 720 cases per 100,000 compares to a rate of 436 per 100,000 for its northern neighbor, according to the CDC.
The county with the highest overall concentration of positive cases, Minnehana, with about 3,500, is on South Dakota’s eastern border, far from the memorial near the western border.
The celebration at Mount Rushmore is just one of several large gatherings the president has orchestrated this summer. In the past week he has held events in Oklahoma and Arizona, and he is also planning to hold a scaled-back “Salute to America” event honoring the military on the South Lawn on July 4.
On Tuesday, Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified before a House committee that Americans should not participate in large-scale gatherings if they can avoid doing so, because such activities could widen the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“Plan A: Don’t go in a crowd. Plan B: If you do, make sure you wear a mask,” Fauci told lawmakers. Inside the effort to build suspense, and crowds, for Trump’s ‘Salute to America’ White House spokesman Judd Deere said in an email the White House’s operations branch consulted with the physician’s office and military office in planning the trip.
“The President looks forward to taking part in the Independence Day festivities, hosted by Governor Noem, and celebrating the greatest country the world has ever known capped off with a magnificent fireworks display above the great faces of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln,” Deere said. “The President takes the health and safety of everyone traveling in support of himself and all White House operations very seriously.”
Trump’s reelection campaign is also leveraging the South Dakota trip to fill its coffers, according to fundraising invitations obtained by The Washington Post. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway will appear as “special guests” at two high-dollar fundraisers in the days before the event in Rapid City, S.D., and Gallatin Gateway, Mont., along with Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend, campaign senior adviser Kimberly Guilfoyle.
The retreat in Montana will run from June 30 to July 2 and features activities such as shooting and fly-fishing, according to the invite, while the “Rapid City Roundup” will take place from July 2 to July 3. Tickets to the events cost $250 for a single-day attendee in Rapid City and between $250 and $100,000 for access to both events.
Cheryl Schreier, who served as the superintendent at Mount Rushmore National Park between September 2010 and May 2019, said in a phone interview that having so many people on a small tract of land posed “public health and safety risks, not only to the visitors but to employees.”
“It’s a bad idea based on the wildland fire risk, the impact to the water quality of the memorial, the fact that is going to occur during a pandemic without social distancing guidelines and the emergency evacuation issues,” Schreier said, adding that all other tourists will be barred from the park on July 3. “And you’re closing off the memorial to visitors who might not normally have a chance to visit Mount Rushmore.”
This spring the Park Service issued an environmental assessment concluding the event would have “no significant impact” on the monument or surrounding public lands.
Trump said in January that when it came to barring fireworks at Mount Rushmore, “nobody knew why, they just said environmental reasons.” And he dismissed the idea that the event would pose any risks to the massive statue depicting the images of four U.S. presidents. “What can burn? It’s stone,” he said.
But a former National Park Service fire management officer who oversaw seven national park sites in the area, including Mount Rushmore, said Trump is mistaken. Dry forest surrounds the venue, said Bill Gabbert.
“My job was to put out the fires,” said Gabbert, who worked in the area for three years, ending in 2001. “Internally in our discussions I recommended that people not shoot fireworks over flammable vegetation.”
In 2000 and 2001, Gabbert said, he recorded 17 fires ignited by fireworks. “Which is somewhat different from the environmental assessment by the Park Service,” he said. “They said during the 11-year period only 20 fires were started.” After the fireworks finale, Gabbert oversaw a platoon of firefighters who went to assigned areas and swept the steep, rocky forest for fires. In 2000, one fire grew so large that it burned overnight and required a 20-person crew and a helicopter to douse it, Gabbert said.
“I think it’s insane to explode fireworks over flammable material and ponderosa pine vegetation,” Gabbert said.
Fireworks shows had been held at the memorial between 1998 and 2009, until U.S. Geological Survey scientists determined the activities left high levels of a toxic chemical called perchlorate in drinking water used by the 3 million people who visit the memorial annually.
Agency analyses, including a December 2017 presentation obtained by The Post, suggest that resuming fireworks could pollute local drinking water supplies, pose possible safety risks and potentially damage the monument itself.
The 2017 presentation noted that the memorial is accessed by a single two-lane road, constraining entrance and access to the grounds.
Schreier said she was particularly concerned whether visitors would be able to leave quickly enough in an emergency, especially because so many people without entrance passes might end up parking on the side of the road to watch the display. “These are winding roadways, and if people are not familiar with Black Hills of South Dakota, it can be very challenging,” she said.
While the 2017 Park Service briefing said the agency “could find no direct evidence or link between ignition of fireworks and cracking of the sculpture,” Schreier said her staff identified scorch marks on the memorial as well as some plastic remains from the fireworks’ casings.
“I actually saw a piece of plastic from fireworks embedded in the granite,” she said. “That is something that will forever be ingrained in my mind.”
Former South Dakota governor Dennis Daugaard (R) asked the Park Service to resume fireworks at the memorial in 2017, but the idea stalled after agency officials raised objections to the plan. Noem then asked Trump about the idea shortly after she took office in 2019. The Interior Department reached an agreement with the governor in May 2019 to resume annual pyrotechnics at the memorial, though last year’s event was put off because of a rehabilitation project on the site.
“I am pleased to inform you that THE BIG FIREWORKS, after many years of not having any, are coming back to beautiful Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Great work @GovKristiNoem and @SecBernhardt! #MAGA,” Trump tweeted on May 7.