A decade after being banned amid concerns about wildfires and groundwater pollution, and despite protests by Native Americans and recommendations from public health officials to avoid public gatherings, fireworks will once again be exploding over Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of western South Dakota on Friday, anticipating the Fourth of July.
President Trump has pushed for the revival of the pyrotechnics display, and he plans to witness the spectacle before 60-foot-tall visages of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt carved across the granite face of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
About 7,500 other spectators will be there, too, having won an online ticket lottery sponsored by South Dakota's state tourism department.
And despite at least 91 deaths registered in South Dakota from COVID-19, these visitors will not be told to don face masks or to practice social distancing at the event.
"We will have a large event July 3rd; we told those folks that have concerns that they can stay home," South Dakota Republican Gov. Kristi Noem told Fox News host Laura Ingraham on Monday. "But [for] those who want to come and join us, we'll be giving out free face masks if they choose to wear one, but we won't be social distancing."
Noem, who became governor last year after serving eight years in the House of Representatives, has refused to order restrictions to protect public health throughout the pandemic.
"Gov. Noem is the only governor in the country who never mandated a single business or church to close, never ordered a shelter-in-place order for her citizens," Noem spokesman Ian Fury tells NPR.
"Gov. Noem has trusted her people to exercise their personal responsibility, to keep themselves, their loved ones and their communities safe, to make the right decisions, to do the right thing. And that's the approach that we're taking here at Rushmore."
South Dakota currently ranks 11th among the 34 states considered by the Harvard Global Health Institute to be prone to "potential community spread," with an average over the past week of 6.2 new cases daily of COVID-19 per 100,000 inhabitants.
Environmental concerns no longer a showstopper
Beyond being an implicit repudiation of recommended public health measures, the South Dakota pyrotechnics extravaganza also highlights Trump's disdain for environmental measures adopted during the Obama administration.
In January, Trump recounted a conversation he said he had with Noem about reversing a 2010 decision by the National Park Service to discontinue an annual tradition begun in 1998 of Fourth of July fireworks displays at Mount Rushmore.
"I said, 'You mean you can't have fireworks because of the environment?' 'Yeah, environmental reasons.' I said, 'What can burn? It's stone.' You know, it's stone. It's granite," Trump recalled. "So I called up our people. And within about 15 minutes, we got it approved."
Trump's claim of having settled the matter was made more than a month before the National Park Service began a formal "evaluation assessment" and monthlong public comment period to decide whether to resume permitting and hosting the Mount Rushmore fireworks.
The National Park Service settled in late April on the option of ending the ban on pyrotechnics at Mount Rushmore "because it best meets the project purpose and need to celebrate the spirit of Independence Day by hosting a fireworks event, while providing for the enjoyment of the public in a manner that ensures safety and resource protection."
In a 2017 document made public by The Washington Post, the National Park Service noted that a minimum of 27 wildfires had been started around Mount Rushmore during annual fireworks displays between 1998 and 2009 and warned that "July fire danger risk can be high to very high" in the Black Hills area.
A former National Park Service employee who was in charge of the fire management program at Mount Rushmore and six other Black Hills park sites, and who saw trees set ablaze more than 1,000 feet from the fireworks' launch point, says shooting fireworks over the national monument's 1,278 acres of forest is "insane."
"The president likes to say, 'well, what can burn, it's rock, right?' " Bill Gabbert, who is now managing editor of the online publication Wildfire Today, tells NPR.
"Yeah, the carving itself is rock, and right below the carving is rock that was carved off in order to make the sculpture," Gabbert adds. "But beyond that, there's a Ponderosa pine forest. The Black Hills generally is a tinder box this time of year, and right now, they're in a drought."
The entire Black Hills area, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System, is currently experiencing a "moderate drought."
The National Park Service did a controlled burn around the monument in the springtime, according to Noem's office, in an effort to lessen the chances of the fireworks igniting surrounding forest.
Gabbert questions the utility of such an exercise.
"Conducting that prescribed fire will reduce the amount of flammable material — the vegetation that is on the ground," the veteran fire ranger says. "It cannot prevent any fire from starting."
Environmental concerns raised by the prospect of fireworks go beyond the hazard of wildfires. A 2016 U.S. Geological Service study finds that "past fireworks displays are the probable cause of elevated concentrations of a contaminant called perchlorate in groundwater and surface water at the national monument."
Perchlorate is used as a propellant in fireworks; it can also impair the ability
of the metabolism-regulating thyroid gland to absorb necessary iodine.
In its "Finding of No Significant Impact" greenlighting the Mount Rushmore fireworks, the National Park Service acknowledges that such displays in the past have contaminated local water supplies with perchlorates. Still, it contends that the levels found at the national monument were well below concentrations that could "impair thyroid function."
"What they're saying is that it's OK to have that amount of perchlorate that may dissipate in the [surface] water and can be found in the well water," says Cheryl Schreier, who was the Mount Rushmore National Memorial's superintendent from 2010 until last year. "Everything [in the National Park Service's 'Finding of No Significant Impact'] was ramped up and really quickly facilitated through, without, I think, that in-depth analysis that should have been completed."
A long-broken treaty
The fireworks will also likely spark demonstrations by Native Americans who accuse the U.S. of breaking the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty recognizing Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills that surround it as part of "the Great Sioux Reservation, set aside for exclusive use by the Sioux people."
"They call this the Shrine of Democracy at Mount Rushmore," says Nick Tilsen, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation from the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation who is president of NDN Collective, a Native American activist group. "We call it the Shrine of Hypocrisy because this democracy that is talked about has been built on the stolen lands of Indigenous people."
Tilsen tells NPR he expects that despite roads having been blocked off for miles around Mount Rushmore, there will be protesters there.
"We're at a time in this country where there's a reckoning and a realization that this country has to get right with its history," says Tilsen. "That's why this is not just a historical injustice that has happened — it's illuminating the current injustices that exist today in society."
Julian Bear Runner, who's president of the Oglala Sioux tribal council, says Trump is obliged to honor the 1868 treaty that a 1980 Supreme Court ruling recognized as binding.
"I have to tell him he doesn't have permission from its original sovereign owners to enter the territory at this time," Bear Runner is quoted as telling The Guardian.
Trump is not likely to heed such protests. According to South Dakota's governor, the real estate developer-turned-president told her in a 2017 Oval Office meeting that he nurtures his own ambitions for the stone-faced monument.
"I said, 'Mr. President, you should come to South Dakota sometime. We have Mount Rushmore.' And he goes, 'Do you know it's my dream to have my face on Mount Rushmore?' " Noem said in a 2018 interview. "I started laughing. He wasn't laughing, so he was totally serious."
Due to a transcription error, a previous version of this story misquoted Bill Gabbert as saying, "Conducting that prescribed fire won't reduce the amount of flammable material — the vegetation that is on the ground." Actually, he said that a "prescribed fire will reduce the amount of flammable material."