15 days left to comment on fireworks at Mount Rushmore

We are halfway through a 30-day period during which comments on a proposal to shoot fireworks over the faces of the four Presidents are being accepted

Mount Rushmore Fireworks garbage
Two months after the fireworks in 2007 while professional photographer Paul Horsted was working on a project at the Mount Rushmore sculpture he found and photographed garbage that was left by fireworks.

The National Park Service will be accepting comments about shooting fireworks over the Mount Rushmore National Memorial until March 30, 2020. The opportunity exists while an Environmental Assessment (EA) that was prepared to evaluate the effects of the fireworks is in the public comment period.

After March 30 the NPS will make a decision about whether to proceed with the fireworks over the faces of four Presidents.

At this link you can comment on the proposal and also download the EA. Express your opinion. (A backup copy of the EA can be found here.)


Our opinion-

I was the Fire Management Officer for Mount Rushmore and six other parks during the first four years that fireworks were used on Independence Day at the Memorial, therefore I have some background knowledge about the issue. There are three reasons why I am against shooting fireworks in the Memorial.

Mount Rushmore Fireworks wildfires fires fire
Paul Horsted shot this photo during the 1998 fireworks at Mount Rushmore that shows either fires started below the sculpture or fireworks shells that landed and were burning.

1. Wildfires
Fireworks were used at Mount Rushmore on July 3 or 4 from 1998 to 2009 except in 2002 when it was canceled due to the danger of the pyrotechnic display starting wildfires. During those 11 events 20 documented wildfires were ignited by the fireworks during the middle of the fire season. They were all suppressed by the 60 to 80 firefighters staged around the sculpture before they could grow large. The park is not just the stone carving; it has over 1,000 acres of timber within the boundary, and beyond that is the Black Hills National Forest.

Concerning the threat of adding to the 20 wildfires started in previous fireworks displays, the EA states that in a dry year a wildfire “would be more likely to result in a high-consequence fire burning outside the boundaries of the Memorial and toward the town of Keystone, South Dakota, up the northeast aspect of Black Elk Peak, or into the basin near Horsethief Lake.”

Professional photographer Paul Horsted attended one of the public meetings earlier this month that were conducted to collect comments from the public about the fireworks. He took photos of some of the exhibits prepared by the National Park Service. One of them is a map showing the locations of six fires that were ignited in 2007. You can see the rest of Paul’s photos of the meeting and the exhibits HERE.

2. Carcinogens in the water
In 2016 the U.S. Geological Survey discovered that the ground and surface water at Mount Rushmore are contaminated with perchlorate, a carcinogen which is a component of rocket fuels, fireworks, and explosives. They determined that the chemical came from the fireworks over the 12-year period during which they were used.

The EA has several paragraphs devoted to the perchlorate and states the concentrations in the water inside the Memorial are “orders of magnitude higher” than reference samples outside the Memorial. But that is an understatement at best. Order of magnitude may sound vague, but it usually means ten times higher. Unmentioned in the EA is the fact that data from the USGS report showed that a maximum perchlorate concentration of 54 micrograms per liter measured in a stream sample between 2011 and 2015 was about 270 times higher than that in samples collected from sites outside the memorial, which were 0.2 micrograms per liter. The Centers for Disease Control says high levels of perchlorate 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.

3. Garbage
Another issue with exploding pyrotechnics over the Memorial is the trash that can never be completely picked up. Left on the sculpture and in the forest are unexploded shells, wadding, plastic, ash, pieces of the devices, and paper; stuff that can never be totally removed in the very steep, rocky, rugged terrain.


All articles on Wildfire Today about Mount Rushmore can be found here.

Prescribed fire planned in footprint of the 2000 Jasper Fire

The wildfire burned 83,000 acres 15 miles west of Custer, South Dakota

Anti-Horse Project prescribed fire Black Hills National Forest
Photo taken Oct. 2016 on the Anti-Horse Project; Black Hills National Forest photo.

The Black Hills National Forest plans to ignite the 2,700-acre Anti-Horse prescribed fire Wednesday March 11, if the weather is suitable.

“This is scheduled to be a two day burn, however we may burn into Friday March 13th if conditions warrant,” said Josh Morgan, Fuels Assistant Fire Manager Officer, Hell Canyon Ranger District.

The Anti-Horse Project area is located approximately 15 air miles west of Custer, South Dakota and 17 miles east of Newcastle, WY in the Surveyor Hill Road/Jasper Fire area, across from the U.S. Forest Service Tepee Work Center.

The objective of the burn is to reduce long term fire hazards and improve health and vigor of forested stands in portions of the Jasper fire area. In 2000 the 83,000-acre Jasper Fire created extensive areas of dead and dying stands. The dead trees have fallen to the ground, creating high concentrations of fuel on the ground that create a hazard to firefighters, the public, and forest resources.

2000 Jasper fire
The Jasper fire, about 2 hours after it started on August 25, 2000. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

In 2013 a decision was signed which allows 16,500 acres of fire hazard reduction in the Jasper Fire and the nearby Roger’s Shack Fire. Over the course of about 10 years, prescribed burning is being used to reduce the fire hazard in these areas. In addition, the decision includes about 650 acres of thinning to improve the health and vigor of islands of forest stands within these areas. “Over the next several years we will work on this project to make the area more resilient for the future,” said District Ranger Lynn Kolund when he signed the decision in April, 2013.

Park Service releases Environmental Assessment to use fireworks at Mount Rushmore

The EA downplays the amount of perchlorate found in the water caused by previous fireworks at the Memorial

Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore

The National Park Service has released an Environmental Assessment (EA) as part of their plan to explode fireworks at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The next step is a relatively short period during which the public may submit comments about the EA.

You have 30 days, until March 30, 2020 to express your opinion.

After March 30 the NPS is supposed to evaluate the public comments and then make a decision about whether to proceed with the fireworks or not.

Download the EA and submit a comment. Express your opinion on the use of fireworks at Mount Rushmore. (A backup copy of the EA can be found here.)

Fireworks were used at Mount Rushmore on July 3 or 4 from 1998 to 2009, except for 2002 when it was canceled due to the danger of the pyrotechnic display starting wildfires. During those 11 events 20 documented wildfires were ignited by the fireworks during the middle of the fire season. They were all suppressed by the 60 to 80 firefighters staged around the sculpture before they could grow large. The park is not just the stone carving; it has over 1,000 acres of timber within the boundary, and beyond that is the Black Hills National Forest.

Concerning the threat of adding to the 20 wildfires started in previous fireworks displays, the EA states that in a dry year a wildfire “would be more likely to result in a high-consequence fire burning outside the boundaries of the Memorial and toward the town of Keystone, South Dakota, up the northeast aspect of Black Elk Peak, or into the basin near Horsethief Lake.”

I was the Fire Management Officer for Mount Rushmore and six other parks during the first four years that fireworks were used on Independence Day at the Memorial. I developed a plan that would require that the weather and fuel conditions be within certain parameters before the fireworks could be used. We continued to refine the plan each year, settling on Probably of Ignition as one of the primary factors on the go/no-go checklist, especially after the fireworks started about 10 fires one year. All of the fires were small and were suppressed by the scores of firefighters we had positioned in the forest around the sculpture.

Park Superintendents Dan Wenk and Gerard Butler promoted and encouraged the program that started numerous fires, rained down tons of debris, and as we found out in 2016, poisoned the water with chemicals. The U.S. Geological Survey discovered that the ground and surface water at Mount Rushmore are contaminated with perchlorate, a component of rocket fuels and explosives. They determined that the chemical came from the fireworks over that 12-year period.

The EA has several paragraphs devoted to the perchlorate and says the concentrations in the water inside the Memorial are “orders of magnitude higher” than reference samples outside the Memorial. But that is an understatement at best. Order of magnitude may sound vague, but it usually means ten times higher. Unmentioned in the EA is the fact that data from the USGS report showed that a maximum perchlorate concentration of 54 micrograms per liter measured in a stream sample between 2011 and 2015 was about 270 times higher than that in samples collected from sites outside the memorial, which were 0.2 micrograms per liter. 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.

According to the EA the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is planning to raise the health advisory for perchlorate from 15 to 56 micrograms per liter. Maybe it is just a coincidence that it would put the contaminated water at Mount Rushmore suddenly within acceptable guidelines. But a process like this is consistent with other environmental policy changes by the federal government in recent years.

Another issue with exploding pyrotechnics over the Memorial is the trash that can never be completely picked up. Left on the sculpture and in the forest are unexploded shells, wadding, plastic, ash, pieces of the devices, and paper; stuff that can never be totally removed in the very steep, rocky, rugged terrain.

Here is an excerpt from page 38 of the EA:

Although it would be the responsibility of the fireworks contractor to remove unexploded ordnance and fireworks debris from the minimum separation distance, the rugged topography of the area would preclude complete recovery of unexploded ordnance and debris. Unexploded ordnance fallout and fireworks malfunction have the potential to cause impacts on buildings, structures, and the cultural landscape from burn marks and scorching, which occurred during past shows. A fireworks malfunction within the Hall of Records area could cause adverse impacts on the walls and the entrance to the Hall of Records…Past fireworks events have left burn marks on top of the sculpture and embedded plastic debris. The preferred alternative would result in additional unexploded ordnance and debris on the landscape.

The language in the announcement of the EA makes it appear that the Park Service wants the state of South Dakota to be the focal point for the effort to explode pyrotechnics over the Memorial: “The National Park Service (NPS) is evaluating a proposal by the State of South Dakota to host a fireworks display at Mount Rushmore National Memorial on July 3, 2020.”

Shortly after the EA was  posted on the NPS website, Kelly Andersson left a comment on one of our earlier articles about the attempt to use fireworks at the Memorial. She wrote, “… All y’all feel free to revise mine or write your own.” You can see it here — scroll way down, it’s dated February 29, 2020.

Other articles on Wildfire Today about fireworks at Mount Rushmore:

President and South Dakota Governor say Mount Rushmore July 4th fireworks will be restored

They were discontinued 10 years ago because of the danger of wildfires in the Ponderosa pine forest and poisoning of the water table from percholrate in the fireworks

fireworks Mount Rushmore Trump Noem
Part of the discussion December 16 at the White House was President Trump and SD Governor Kristi Noem stating that fireworks were going to be shot over Mount Rushmore July 4, 2020.

During a December 16 meeting in the White House with several Governors and administration officials, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem and Mr. Trump both said fireworks were going to be displayed at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota during the 4th of July holiday in 2020.

The fireworks were discontinued after 2009 due to wildfires that were ignited by the explosions over the Ponderosa Pine forest, and, very serious contamination of the water caused by the chemicals in the fireworks.

Below is a portion of the transcript of the meeting provided by the White House in which Mr. Trump said Governor Noem asked him for a “favor”.

THE PRESIDENT:  It’s a great place [South Dakota].  And you also are going to have a very exciting Fourth of July.

GOVERNOR NOEM:  We are.  We’re going to have fireworks.

THE PRESIDENT:  Right.

GOVERNOR NOEM:  And I’m hoping you will —

THE PRESIDENT:  For many years — for many years, the fireworks —

GOVERNOR NOEM:  — you will come — at Mount Rushmore.

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, we’re going to think about it.  Mount Rushmore.  They ended the fireworks.  How many years ago?  A long time.

GOVERNOR NOEM:  Gosh, it was at least 10 years ago.  So —

THE PRESIDENT:  Nobody knows why, but you just couldn’t have it.  And now you’re going to have fireworks.  And the Governor called, and she said, “You got to do me a favor.”  Right?

GOVERNOR NOEM:  And you did.

THE PRESIDENT:  And we worked it out.  And we got it done.  And you’re going to have fireworks.

In May, 2019 both the Governor and the President issued statements or tweets saying the fireworks were being restored.

President Trump, May 8, 2019:

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 also 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 signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the State of South Dakota, “to work to reinstate fireworks at Mount Rushmore for Fourth of July celebrations.”

Following the May announcements by the politicians, the NPS said it was not etched in stone that the fireworks would 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.”

Today we checked with the NPS again and a spokesperson in Washington said, “The National Park Service has not made a formal decision; that will happen through the [National Environmental Policy Act] and permitting processes. The NPS expects to release a NEPA document for public review in February, 2020.”

So, officially, no decision about Mount Rushmore fireworks has been made, in spite of the statements by the President and the Governor to the contrary. The word in D.C. is that the fireworks are a priority, so how would you place a bet? They will or will not happen?

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.

Mount Rushmore looking down from the top
Mount Rushmore administrative site, looking down from the top of the sculpture. Photo by Bill Gabbert June, 2001.

The park is not just the stone carving; it is surrounded by thousands of acres of timber and the Black Hills National Forest.

Part of my job was to plan for suppression of the fires that started when burning embers from the fireworks 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.

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.

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

The shows 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.

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.

Update on High Plains Fire in the Black Hills

The service for Dwain Hudson who passed away while en route to the fire has been scheduled

 High Plains Fire
Screenshot from drone footage of the High Plains Fire northwest of Custer, SD at 7 p.m. MDT April 17, 2019. Video by Custer County Search And Rescue. Click to enlarge.

The High Plains Fire five air miles south of Jewel Cave National Monument in the Black Hills of South Dakota has been more accurately mapped at 140 acres. The lightning-caused fire was reported at 12:29 p.m. on April 17.

The photo above is a screenshot from drone footage obtained over the fire by the Custer County Search and Rescue Service at 7 p.m. the day the fire started. The image quality is quite good considering it was cloudy and was filmed 40 minutes before sunset.

Part of the fire is in the footprint of the Jasper Fire that burned 83,000 acres in August, 2000, as indicated by the fallen trees from 0:25 to 1:15.

The service for Dwain Hudson who passed away while en route to the fire has been scheduled, but the family is requesting that it be intimate in nature. Due to that and the limited size of the venue they are requesting that only the three local fire departments and ambulance service attend. The service will be April 27 at 11 a.m. at McColley’s Chapels in Custer, South Dakota.

Condolences can be sent to the Argyle Volunteer Fire Department, P.O. Box 176, Pringle, SD 57773. More information will be at the Department’s Facebook page.

Firefighter dies while responding to wildfire in South Dakota

A firefighter that was responding to the High Plains Fire five air miles south of Jewel Cave National Monument in the Black Hills of South Dakota has died.

Custer County Emergency Management reported that on April 17, 2019 Dwayne Hudson, a firefighter with the Argyle Fire Department, experienced a medical emergency while en route as a passenger in one of the vehicles. He was treated by fellow responders and the Custer Ambulance Service on scene and continued to be treated while being transported to Custer Regional Hospital. However, he did not survive.

The High Plains Fire started Wednesday afternoon from a lighting strike and as of Thursday morning had burned approximately 100 acres.

Our sincere condolences go out to Mr. Hudson’s family, friends, and coworkers.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Matt. Typos or errors, report them HERE.