Mount Rushmore firework environmental review shows 60% wildfire risk, water, damage, tribal concerns

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MOUNT RUSHMORE NATIONAL MEMORIAL, S.D. (KELO) — The environmental study is done and it shows impacts to water, wildlife, tribal relations and the monument itself if fireworks return to Independence Day celebrations in 2020, as planned.

The display took place for 12 years, but was halted in 2009 because of the Black Hills pine beetle infestation, which raised forest fire concerns.

“I said, ‘you mean we can’t have fireworks because of the environment?’ ‘Yeah, environmental reasons.’ I said ‘what can burn? It’s stone. You know, it’s stone.’ So, nobody knew why, they just said environmental reasons,” President Donald Trump said in January.

The Trump administration on Friday put aside environmental fears, saying they’re ready to move forward.

“I share in President Trump and Secretary Bernhardt’s commitment to bringing back fireworks to this iconic American landmark,” Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, Rob Wallace said in a statement. “We’re excited to continue working with the community and its leaders as we plan this celebration of our nation’s birth.”

Environmental concerns

However, a 66-page document released from the Department of the Interior on Friday shows environmental concerns.

Wildfire risk

The pine beetle was the reason for shutting down the fireworks. Now in 2020, the National Park Service model finds a low probability of a major wildfire burning to Keystone or Custer State Park – less than 0.02%.

However, the probability of a modest wildfire is more than 60%.

“The most likely wildfire scenario would be confined entirely to the Memorial. The model shows likely containment of any unplanned fire in the vicinity of the fireworks launch site. This is consistent with the successful containment of small wildfires in previous years that resulted from fireworks displays,” the report said.

Average Year

There will be a go/no-go checklist to determine wildfire concerns leading up to the event.

Water quality

Another problem, as KELOLAND Investigates reported, is based on a federal investigation which found the fireworks were filling the water around Mt. Rushmore with a toxic chemical.

NPS and United States Geological Survey plan to do baseline testing before the summer’s planned fireworks and after.

“The potential exists that levels of these chemicals in drinking water could become elevated following a fireworks display, especially when considering the existing elevated levels of perchlorate in the Memorial’s drinking water,” the report said.

For Mount Rushmore staff living at the memorial, the concerns are less likely because of a reverse osmosis treatment system. The report said they will add another system.

“Additional reverse osmosis treatment systems would be added as needed to protect human health,” the report said.

Structural concerns

There are also concerns about the structure of the memorial.

“The 2015 Foundation Document: Mount Rushmore National Memorial identifies fireworks as a major threat to the sculpture, based on the nature of the fireworks program from 1998 to 2009 and its impacts on the cultural resources of the Memorial,” the report said.

One of the areas of concern is specifically the Hall of Records, a facility located behind the heads of the presidents, which once was supposed to house the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

It currently sits unfinished but contains a “repository of records” not meant to be opened for thousands of years.

  • The Hall of Records (Courtesy: National Park Service)

The solution outlined by the park service is to elevate the fireworks platform above the Hall of Records to reduce impacts and to ensure the fireworks contractor cleans up, which has been a problem in the past.

Getting fireworks to the Hall of Records would be a challenge too.

“The logistics of transporting materials to and from this site are considerable; fireworks would need to be hauled to the site by helicopter or ropes teams. Fireworks contractor staff handling fireworks material would be required to have the appropriate certifications for fireworks handling,” the report said.

Tribal relations

The National Park Service also consulted with area tribes and found the effects of bringing back fireworks would not be appropriate.

“The Black Hills are sacred to many tribes and there remain issues with the very establishment and carving of the Memorial in an area of profound cultural value to tribes,” the report said.

Public comments

Now that the environmental review is done, a public comment period has opened. Comments will be accepted online until March 30.

David Vela is the deputy director of the NPS, but is currently acting as the director.

“This is an important step in exploring the return of fireworks to Mount Rushmore National Memorial in a way that protects the memorial, the environment and park visitors,” Vela said. “Public engagement will play a key role in the planning process for the National Park Service.”

There will also be a series of public events in March:

  • Monday March 9, Rapid City Information Session SDGFP (South Dakota Game/Fish/Parks) Outdoor Campus, West 4130 Adventure Trail, Rapid City, 57702 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.
  • Tuesday, March 10, Custer Information Session Courthouse Annex, Pine Room, 420 Mount Rushmore Road, Custer SD 57730 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.
  • Wednesday, March 11, Keystone Information Session Community Center Meeting Room, 1101 Madill St, Keystone SD 57751 4 p.m.– 6 p.m.

Event logistics

We also learned more about the actual event this week, which Trump has hinted he may come to.

“I’ll try and get out there if I can,” Trump said in January regarding the event.

  • The event would be held on July 3, 2020
  • 15-30 minutes of fireworks and “proximate pyrotechnics displays” illuminating the president’s faces
  • Music, speeches and reenactments would occur before the fireworks
  • A military flyover may also occur
  • A ticketed, first-come, first-serve process will be used
  • There will be limited seating options
  • A shuttle big could be used to help bring people to the memorial, due to limited parking
  • Fireworks will be shot from: the amphitheater area, the talus slope and Presidential Trail area, and the Hall of Records area

Full Report