You might have noticed, or heard, that there have been a lot of fireworks going off recently. As reported by pretty much every news outlet on the planet, people have been blasting off major, commercial-grade pyrotechnics in cities across the country. And while the police debate how, or whether, to intervene, a much larger and more dangerous fireworks display, fully sanctioned by the authorities, is scheduled to take place on July 3 at Mount Rushmore.
For the first time in a decade, an Independence Day celebration complete with lots of explosions is planned at the monument, which is surrounded by 1200 acres of highly flammable trees. (By the way, there is currently a massive wildfire burning in nearby Custer State Park.) While fireworks shows have been held at Mount Rushmore before, they were banned in 2009 over concerns of forest fires and other environmental issues. Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey also found that the displays left perchlorate, a toxic chemical that affects the thyroid, in the park’s drinking water.
When President Trump originally announced the event back in January, he dismissed worries about the risk of fire, saying, “What can burn? It's stone."
While South Dakota has contemplated bringing fireworks back to the monument since at least 2017 under then-Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R), this summer is an exceptionally stupid time to host a big celebration with lots of things that blow up. The state reported nearly 6,500 cases of coronavirus as of Thursday, and there are no special safety precautions being taken for the event beyond the normal state coronavirus guidelines. Roughly 125,000 people requested tickets for the show, but attendance is capped at 7,500, according to the South Dakota Department of Tourism.
“It’s a bad idea based on the wildland fire risk, the impact to the water quality of the memorial, the fact that is going to occur during a pandemic without social distancing guidelines, and the emergency evacuation issues,” Cheryl Schreir, Mount Rushmore’s superintendent from 2010 to 2019, told The Washington Post.
Ian Fury, the communications director for South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, tells Mic, "We are confident that the Rushmore Fireworks celebration can be conducted safely. Proactive preparations for the event include an Environmental Assessment, which found No Significant Impact and a controlled burn conducted by the National Parks Service."
Trump’s obsession with large and empty displays of patriotism coupled with things that make loud noises has been well documented, but beyond the photo ops, the president is planning a number of fundraising events for his re-election campaign as well, according to the Post. The events will feature shooting and fly-fishing, and include a thing called the “Rapid City Roundup.” Tickets for the events range anywhere from $250 to $100,000.
On top of the myriad safety concerns, there are expected to be protests from the Native American community. Mount Rushmore is after all a monument built by a literal member of the Ku Klux Klan on land stolen from indigenous people.
“Mount Rushmore is a symbol of white supremacy, of structural racism that’s still alive and well in society today,” Nick Tilsen of the Oglala Lakota tribe told the Associated Press. Tilsen, who is also president of the NDN Collective, a local South Dakota activist organization, added, “It’s an injustice to actively steal indigenous people’s land then carve the white faces of the conquerors who committed genocide.”
While the cost of the event isn’t known (when asked about the price tag, Fury said the "details are continuing to be worked out"), the controlled burn that was done in preparation for the event cost an estimated $30,000, according to the monument’s chief of interpretation and education. And, generally speaking, fireworks displays are not cheap. New York’s July 4 display, which admittedly is the largest in the nation, costs around $6 million.
Any one of these reasons should be enough to convince officials to cancel the show. But instead it will likely carry on as planned, propelled by Trump's relentless desire for hollow patriotic spectacle, regardless of the cost and countless dangers.