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”.

Idaho legislature refuses to close loophole in fireworks regulations

The state of Idaho has a ridiculous law regulating the use of fireworks. It prohibits the use of fireworks that fly more than 20 feet into the air, including bottle rockets and aerial displays, that are used for private purposes. However, they can be sold in the state without any problem. The buyer simply has to promise by signing a form that they will not use them in Idaho.

Yesterday House Minority Leader Rep. Mat Erpelding introduced legislation that would close this loophole, making the sale of the illegal fireworks illegal. However within hours on a vote of 9 to 6 it was shot down by the House State Affairs Committee.

Dennis Doan, Chief of the Boise Fire Department, released a statement on Monday:

I would like to thank Rep Erpelding for his leadership on this issue. It was clear by the actions of the committee today they do not care about firefighter safety, or if people’s homes and lives are being destroyed by illegal fireworks every year. The exorbitant cost to taxpayers and local governments, and the fact that six homes in Ada County were burned down last year, was not enough to influence their decision to print a bill which would allow a full hearing and dialogue about this important issue.

The ability to purchase illegal fireworks apparently trumps the right of residents to protect their home from fires. This summer when someone’s home burns down due to aerial fireworks you can blame the House State Affairs Committee.

The 2,500-acre Table Rock Fire in the Boise foothills last June was caused by illegal fireworks, burned a home, and cost taxpayers $341,000, according to Chief Doan.

Evidence suggests that water at Mount Rushmore contaminated by fireworks displays

The U.S. Geological Survey has determined that fireworks ruined the water.

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

Between 1998 and 2009 the park Superintendents at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota thought it would be cool to explode tons, yes, tons of fireworks over the top of the memorial around July 4. For those 12 years tens of thousands of dollars, much of it donated, and thousands of person hours were spent on this ridiculous display. Superintendents Dan Wenk and Gerard Butler promoted and encouraged the program that started numerous fires, rained down tons of debris, and now we’re finding out, poisoned the water with chemicals.

Mount Rushmore fireworks debris
Some of the debris and trash at the launch site of the fireworks at Mount Rushmore. Screen shot from the video below.

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.

The park provides drinking water to about 3 million visitors and personnel every year. Its superintendent, Cheryl Schreier, said Monday that the park will continue to strive to provide drinking water that “meets and exceeds current standards.”

But the USGS report says perchlorate in drinking water is not currently regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

As Fire Management Officer for Mount Rushmore and six other national parks in the greater Black Hills during five of those years when fireworks were exploded over the monument, it was 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. After the aerial explosions ended, we would move in, search at night in the steep rocky terrain, and extinguish the fires.

In one of the first years, there were over a dozen that were found. They were all put out when they were small, but it was an insane concept to shoot off tons of fireworks over a Ponderosa pine forest in July. The park is not just the stone carving; it has 1,200 acres of trees and other vegetation surrounded by the Black Hills National Forest. I made my opinion known, but it carried little weight compared to the GS-15 Superintendents and other government executives.

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 unexploded shells, wadding, ash, pieces of the devices, paper, and poisonous chemicals; stuff than can never be completely picked up in the rugged terrain. From certain angles, it looked like the rockets were coming out of the tops of the Presidents’ heads.

The whole thing was, and still is, disgusting.

Stick figure fireworks safety

I’m thinking the BLM did not waste a lot of money producing this 36-second public service announcement, but I like it, and it could be effective. Nicely done, BLM!

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(UPDATE at 11:18 a.m. PT, July 1, 2015)

After we posted the video, Kevin Conran of the BLM left this comment:

Thank you for the compliments on our PSAs. As you surmised this was very low cost to produce. It was actually produced by a local high school student. We hosted a contest among the high school speech/communications classes and challenged them to produce PSAs aimed at reaching their age group.