For the first time in more than a decade, fireworks will light up the sky over Mount Rushmore as part of President Donald Trump’s Fourth of July celebration next week, an event that is expected to draw thousands of people from across the country despite coronavirus, wildfire and water pollution concerns.
The July 3 event in South Dakota’s Black Hills is scheduled to include an appearance by Trump, who has vocally pushed for the return of the site’s pyrotechnics display that last took place at the national memorial in 2009.
National Park Service officials had scrapped the display in previous years because of the heightened risk of wildfires linked to pine beetle infestations in the surrounding forest. The forest, which primarily features ponderosa pine trees, has recovered to levels that will “allow for a safe fireworks display,” the state’s tourism website said.
Trump announced his intent to launch fireworks at the site back in January; he also dismissed wildfire concerns at the site, saying, “What can burn? It’s stone.”
It’s not clear whether a 150-acre wildfire burning roughly 6 miles south of Mount Rushmore in Custer State Park will affect the coming fireworks event. Local and federal memorial officials did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment Thursday.
A former National Park Service fire management officer who oversaw Mount Rushmore and six other national park sites in the area disagreed with Trump’s fire assessment, however, and called plans to shoot explosives over the wooded area unwise, particularly because of how dry the area has been.
“Shooting fireworks over a ponderosa pine forest, or any flammable vegetation, is ill-advised and should not be done. Period,” he told the Argus Leader.
But it’s not just wildfires that are raising concerns over Trump’s push to light up the night sky.
A total of 7,500 event tickets have gone out to people across the country, according to state tourism officials, raising health concerns about the nation’s ongoing surge in coronavirus cases.
South Dakota’s COVID-19 case count has remained relatively flat in recent weeks. But about 70% of the roughly 125,000 people who applied for the event’s $1 tickets will come from other states. The tickets were granted through a lottery system. The states that had the most ticket applicants were California, Colorado, Minnesota, Texas, Washington, Utah, Oregon, Wyoming, Nebraska, Illinois and Florida, according to a list obtained by the Rapid City Journal.
California, Texas, Washington, Illinois and Florida currently have some of the highest COVID-19 levels in the country, according to the latest figures released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
South Dakota’s tourism website advises that the firework show’s “participants will be in close contact for an extended amount of time” and that they should “plan accordingly.” Information on social distancing is not included on the website, and Gov. Kristi Noem (R) earlier this month said that social distancing will not be enforced at the event.
Unlike Trump’s recent campaign rally in Oklahoma, tickets for the fireworks display do not include a liability waiver if attendees become ill with COVID-19, the Argus Leader reported.
The South Dakota Department of Health referred social distancing questions to the state’s Department of Tourism, which did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
There have also been concerns about the fireworks’ harm to the local water supply. A 2016 U.S. Geological Survey report found that Mount Rushmore’s annual fireworks displays were the probable cause of elevated concentrations of the neurotoxin perchlorate in local groundwater. Perchlorate has been linked to brain damage in infants.
The Trump administration last week ended the Obama administration’s efforts to regulate perchlorate in the nation’s drinking water. The chemical is a component of rocket fuel, ammunition and other explosives.
Cheryl Schreier, who served as the superintendent at Mount Rushmore National Monument between September 2010 and May 2019, called the fireworks event “a bad idea,” not just for tourists but also for park employees.
“It’s a bad idea based on the wildland fire risk, the impact to the water quality of the memorial, the fact that [it] is going to occur during a pandemic without social distancing guidelines and the emergency evacuation issues,” she told The Washington Post.
Some Native Americans consider the land to have been stolen and desecrated by hostile foreign invaders centuries ago, and they reportedly plan to protest Trump’s visit next week.
“Mount Rushmore is a symbol of white supremacy, of structural racism that’s still alive and well in society today,” Nick Tilsen, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and the president of a local activist organization called NDN Collective, told the Associated Press. “It’s an injustice to actively steal indigenous people’s land then carve the white faces of the conquerors who committed genocide.”