Cheryl Schreier was superintendent of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial from 2010 to 2019.
It has been more than 10 years since fireworks were last seen at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The fireworks were canceled in 2010, my first year as superintendent of the memorial, and they never resumed during my tenure. While such patriotic celebrations were memorable, they also endangered public safety and irreplaceable natural and cultural resources within the national park and surrounding area.
Yet this year, President Trump and his administration, with the support of South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem, have insisted on resuming the fireworks on July 3. And the Interior Department, under Secretary David Bernhardt, is allowing this to happen, overlooking the well-documented danger this event presents.
Several concerns drove the sound decision to cancel the fireworks in 2010. In case of emergency — wildfires started by the fireworks, medical emergencies or extreme weather events — evacuation of visitors could prove tremendously difficult. The anticipated traffic congestion and gridlock could last for hours before and after the event, compounded by visitors who are not familiar with the area. Furthermore, chemicals in the groundwater caused by perchlorates from fireworks is a concern to the health and safety of visitors and employees. A recent analysis of water and soil samples from the memorial found contamination “an order of magnitude higher” than sites measured outside the memorial; the analysis also stated that further fireworks events would increase contamination levels. This is an unacceptable outcome.
And this year, resuming the fireworks demonstration is an even greater threat to both humans and nature. Thanks to an extremely dry summer, South Dakota faces a higher than usual risk of wildfires. A former fire management officer for Mount Rushmore and numerous national parks warned that the fireworks show would be “ill-advised” given the dry conditions. The National Park Service has heeded similar warnings in previous years, canceling the fireworks in 2002 and 2010 at least in part because of high fire danger. And the park service has continued to cite concern over devastating wildfires as a reason for discontinuing the event until now.
In addition to concerns over fire, we must acknowledge the very real risk that Friday’s event could become a hot spot for coronavirus infections, particularly as there are no plans to enforce social distancing. The 7,500 people in attendance have been drawn from ticket requests from across the country, including many states seeing a marked rise in cases of coronavirus infections. This is a recipe for disaster. Ironically, though organizers won’t lower the number of tickets for the event in the name of health and safety, they will close Mount Rushmore to regular visitation for the entire day leading up to the fireworks event. (On a typical July day, the memorial sees more than 25,000 visitors.) Trump’s event will not only result in less opportunity for the usual flow of visitors to enjoy the memorial, it will actually jeopardize the safety of park service employees, volunteers, concession workers, visitors and residents of the gateway communities.
While cities and communities across the United States are canceling their Fourth of July celebrations to adhere to social distancing guidelines and protect their citizens, Trump and Noem are actively encouraging people to gather together, all in service of an event which poses clear risks to both visitors and the environment. I urge them to reconsider this event for the health and safety of us all.