Politicians want to resume fireworks displays over the forest at Mount Rushmore

mount rushmore fireworks
Photo showing Mount Rushmore fireworks with burning embers hitting the ground. Photo: South Dakota Tourism

It is possible that July 4 fireworks displays could again be seen at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota beginning next year. The last time fireworks rained down on the sculpture and the ponderosa pine forest below was in 2009.

President Trump sent out a tweet yesterday:

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

Governor Kristi Noem distributed a press release, writing in part, “[T]he State of South Dakota and the U.S. Department of the Interior have agreed to bring fireworks back to Mount Rushmore National Memorial beginning with the 2020 Independence Day celebration.”

The Memorial is administered by the National Park Service which is part of the Department of the Interior. The DOI has signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the State of South Dakota, “to work to reinstate fireworks at Mount Rushmore for Fourth of July celebrations.”

According to the NPS it is not etched in stone that the fireworks will occur.

“The agreement”, said Maureen McGee-Ballinger, chief of interpretation and education at Mount Rushmore, “is the first step in a long process. The National Park Service will be working with the state, land management agencies, various specialists in a variety of fields, and will be exercising our authority under state and federal law to explore safe and available options in regards to the proposal. So, it’s a proposal. This is just the beginning of the process to look at that.”

For the last three months President Trump and the Governor of South Dakota, Kristi Noem, have been pushing to resume the fireworks over the faces of the Presidents. There is a report that the President joked that he would be in favor of it only if he could push the button to set them off.

From 1998 through 2009 fireworks were launched over the sculpture with strong support from local businesses that benefited from the thousands of spectators that crowded over the mountain roads to access the site.

During the first five years of the fireworks, Mount Rushmore was one of the seven Parks within the Northern Great Plains Fire Management organization for which I was the Fire Management Officer. Knowing that fireworks often start structure and vegetation fires, I argued against the project when it was first proposed. The park is not just the stone carving; it has 1,200 acres of timber within the boundary, and beyond that is the Black Hills National Forest.

Mount Rushmore
The sculpture at Mount Rushmore is at the icon in this satellite photo. Google Earth.

But the decision was made to begin the July 4 fireworks in 1998. As part of the planning team I developed fire-related criteria that became part of the go/no-go checklist that was fine-tuned over the years. One of the items on the list was a requirement that the Probability of Ignition be within certain parameters. If it was too high, the event would be cancelled or postponed. But there was tremendous pressure to make it happen. Tens of thousands of spectators usually attended, with many of them coming from long distances. It took many days to haul the fireworks up through the steep, rocky terrain and wire them up for the programmed display.

It was also my job to plan for suppression of the fires that started when burning embers hit the ground. We mobilized dozens of firefighters during the busy part of the fire season and had them positioned just outside the falling-debris zone. We had to restrict out of area fire assignments to be sure enough firefighters remained available for the show. After the aerial explosions ended, we would move in, search at night in the steep rocky terrain, and extinguish the fires. One year after searching through the dense timber on a moonless night, a hotshot crew got lost as they tried to return to their vehicles. We were pretty worried about them when they didn’t show up, but they eventually made it, about an hour later than expected.

In one of the first displays over a dozen fires started. They were all put out when they were small, but it was proven then to be an insane concept to shoot off literally tons of fireworks over a ponderosa pine forest in July.

In 2016 the USGS discovered that the ground and surface water at Mount Rushmore is contaminated with percholrate, a component of rocket fuels and explosives. They determined that the chemical came from the fireworks over that 12-year period.

Data from the USGS report showed that a maximum perchlorate concentration of 54 micrograms per liter was measured in a stream sample, which is about 270 times higher than that in samples collected from sites outside the memorial. The Centers for Disease Control says high levels of perchlorates can affect the thyroid gland, which in turn can alter the function of many organs in the body. The fetus and young children can be especially susceptible.

Aside from the impractical aspects of fires, cost, and ruining the water, the esthetics of the display were disrespectful and distasteful — explosions over the faces of Presidents Washington, Roosevelt, Jefferson, and Lincoln — raining down onto the sculpture, rocks, and forests. The show left on the sculpture and in the forest unexploded shells, wadding, ash, pieces of the devices, paper, and poisonous chemicals; stuff that can never be completely picked up in the steep, rocky, rugged terrain.

Mount Rushmore fireworks debris
Some of the debris and trash at the launch site of the fireworks at Mount Rushmore.

Trivia of the day: President Trump has tweeted about “fireworks” 19 times. Most often to describe an upcoming episode of “The Apprentice”.

Typos, let us know HERE. And, please keep in mind our commenting ground rules before you post a comment.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

23 thoughts on “Politicians want to resume fireworks displays over the forest at Mount Rushmore”

  1. Ah, what a fine example of patriotism! Let’s celebrate the country’s independence with litter, pollution, noise, and greed and then add in a substantial risk of wildland fire to boot! Not to mention encouraging additional carbon emission from all the folks who drive miles to participate. ‘Murica!

  2. “Data from the USGS report showed that a maximum perchlorate concentration of 54 micrograms per liter was measured in a stream sample, which is about 270 times higher than that in samples collected from sites outside the memorial. The Centers for Disease Control says high levels of perchlorates can affect the thyroid gland, which in turn can alter the function of many organs in the body. The fetus and young children can be especially susceptible.”

    Perchlorate don’t affect fish and wildlife?

    Who’s going to pay this? South Dakota? Or you and me, for the fireworks, standby suppression, and cleanup? What a waste of money. All this, let alone in a ponderosa forest.

  3. Thanks Bill, for your advocacy back then, and your attention to this issue now. Please don’t let it drop — you, more than most humans in the country, have a valid voice in this and speak for thousands who recognize the idiocy behind this “plan” to reinstate the show.

    We all remember Yellowstone in ’88 and it’s easy to imagine how this would play on the evening news — particularly if a fireworks-ignited blaze gets loose and rips through the forest and kills people. Traffic jams and streams of people fleeing Paradise? That would be horrific at Mt. Rushmore, though it might be sick-ironic if Ditzy Donnie was actually allowed to “push the button” and launch a disaster …

    Keep on ’em, Bill.

  4. Thank you so much for being on this. Please find and publish contact information for the most influential person involved with this decision who is at least remotely sane. If we can convince someone with power to cancel the first one, it at least buys us time. We can all send her or him a link to Inside the Megafire.

    1. Good question, Lise.

      Park Superintendents in the National Park Service have a lot of power.

      Cheryl Schreier, Superintendent
      Mount Rushmore National Memorial
      13000 Highway 244
      Building 31, Suite 1
      Keystone, SD 57751
      Phone: 605-574-3131

      There has not been a Director of the National Park Service since January 3, 2017, but the acting Director is:

      Dan Smith, acting Director
      National Park Service
      1849 C Street NW
      Washington, DC 20240
      Phone: 202-208-6843

  5. Insane: I trust officals will be directed to rake the forest before ignition . . . .

    1. Everyone who attends should bring their own rake, including the big guy who “pushes” the button.

      1. I’d bet a dollar he actually thinks that’s how fireworks happen.

        Too bad we don’t have a “button to push” for funding fire.
        I’d hold his &*%%@#* hand to do it.

  6. Not a good idea for all the stated reasons. Fire works also produce large amounts of toxic smoke. Let’s see who has the courage to just say no. Who gets the littering citation?

  7. Apparently The Donald forgot how it was to walk through Paradise, CA after the Camp Fire ripped through and destroyed forest and homes. Short attention span and he’s only there for the visual and the sound bite. Fireworks are cool. So are camo caps with USA on them. Apparently it’s “my dream to have my face on Mt. Rushmore”. https://www.newsweek.com/mount-rushmore-trumpmore-kristi-noem-south-dakota-donald-trump-mt-rushmore-901431 Has he even been to Mt. Rushmore?

  8. Laser show.. much better, far less expensive, and doesn’t increase threats. Stop politics, start common sense and sanity.

    Don’t let wildfiretoday.com become just another site that polarizes people to the far left or far right without seeking the common truth.

    1. A laser show would be a low impact alternative. In defense of Bill G. he comes across as a person seeking the common truth. He works hard to find and state the facts and truths stand by them and admit his errors. I don’t always agree with him but respect the hell out of him for his fine publication and good knowledge.

  9. Summer of 2004 a Ponderosa pine just under one of the faces ignited during the show. Fireworks arent allowed anywhere in the Black Hills Fire Protection District unless something has changed.

  10. I heard the president on C-SPAN telling Republican governors that the fireworks would be resumed. Alarmingly, he claimed “no one knew why” they were ever canceled.

    I was grateful to find this post, learn about all of the hard work you did, and discover some of the reasons.

    1. Billy, thanks for the heads up about a possible resumption of fireworks at Mount Rushmore. I have some messages in to folks in D.C. to get the truth, but here’s what reporter Mark Knoller (@markknoller) tweeted December 17, 2019:
      “.@govkristinoem thanked @POTUS for helping clear the way for the return of fireworks to Mount Rushmore next July 4th. they had been barred for 10 years due to the pine beetle infestation and the risk of forest fire. No mention of adding his image to the landmark.”

      And another reporter, Seung Min Kim, @seungminkim, quoted Mr. Trump talking about the Mount Rushmore fireworks:
      “Nobody knows why but we just couldn’t have it and now you’re going to have fireworks. The governor (Kristi Roem) called and she said ‘you’ve got to do me a favor.’ Right?”

  11. For those of you still interested – the National Park Service just released an Environmental Assessment on the plan to re-introduce fireworks at Mount Rushmore in July 2020 – please take the five minutes to read the EA and comment on this proposal – it’s all public and available for your review – As someone who works on this park, and knows that you folks have a lot more experience in this field, I’m hoping you can chime in with your expertise and make a difference for all of us!


  12. and THANKS BILL for providing the basis and background for comments.
    All y’all feel free to revise mine or write your own:

    Should people stage a fireworks show at Mt. Rushmore?

    South Dakota and the DOI should instead jointly and strongly oppose any efforts to allow fireworks at this site on Independence Day or any other date. Local businesses that enjoy and benefit from the thousands of visitors who would attend could benefit from a CONCERT or other event that’s likely to draw crowds. (Considering the threat of coronavirus that’s recently been added to the discussion, though, local businesses might rethink their welcome.)

    The 1200 acres of timber surrounding the monument, along with the adjacent Black Hills National Forest, are at high risk of wildfire in July without the added ignition potential that fireworks and increased holiday crowds would add. USGS surveys have shown that ground and surface water at Mt. Rushmore are contaminated with perchlorate from previous fireworks events. Fireworks display debris on the monument and in the adjacent forest has included unexploded shells, wadding, ash, pieces of the devices, paper, and poisonous chemicals; finding, picking up, and removing such debris left over from literally tons of fireworks would be difficult and expensive — and hazardous to NPS personnel in the steep and rugged terrain.

    Kelly Andersson, Oregon

  13. Bill your attention to this issue is very much appreciated. I photographed the first fireworks show at Mt. Rushmore in 1998. Thought it was awesome. Then I saw what the litter afterward was like, and later learned about the other bad effects (I even got photos of fires that started below the faces, which of course were extinguished by firefighters at some risk to their safety no doubt.) I’m posting these photos and other images of Mt. Rushmore on my facebook page trying to get people to send their comments to the NPS before the March 30, 2020 deadline. Even though I think this decision has been made already, some NPS at local meetings about it last week (in Custer, Rapid City and Keystone) assured me the comments could make a difference. But I think it’s going to have to be an overwhelming response against. Please call your congresspeople and comment at https://parkplanning.nps.gov/commentForm.cfm?documentID=100890 My own posts and photos are at https://www.facebook.com/phorsted

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