President Trump will finally get to give a speech at Mount Rushmore Friday night. It’s something he’s reportedly been wanting to do since at least 2018 and he’s not going to let a resurgent pandemic, or concerns about wildfires stop him.
Unlike his last large gathering of thousands of supporters, which took place inside an Oklahoma arena, this one, at least, is outdoors. That reduces the risk of spreading coronavirus. But there is also little expectation — an no requirement — of social distancing at the gathering, for which 7,500 tickets have been distributed.
Governor Kristi Noem defiantly said earlier this week that visitors to the Monument “won’t be social distancing.” There will however be signs posted at the park reminding people to keep their distance and free masks will be provided for those who want them. In South Dakota, the coronavirus outbreak hasn’t created the kind of problems it has in many larger states. The state has seen 6,826 cases, which is a fraction of the number seen in the countries most worrying hotspots. Still, South Dakota has seen 773 cases per 100,000 residents, more than Florida, and it’s likely that many out-of-state visitors will be drawn to the July 3 event.
Then there are the fireworks. Since 2009, fireworks have been banned at the monument, which is surrounded by more than 1,000 acres of forest. The National Park Service says it had taken some precautions ahead of Friday’s event, conducting a controlled burn around the site to reduce the chances of igniting a wildfire.
Still, former superintendent Cheryl Schreier wrote in the Washington Post this week, the ceremony is bad idea:
Thanks to an extremely dry summer, South Dakota faces a higher than usual risk of wildfires. A former fire management officer for Mount Rushmore and numerous national parks warned that the fireworks show would be “ill-advised” given the dry conditions. The National Park Service has heeded similar warnings in previous years, canceling the fireworks in 2002 and 2010 at least in part because of high fire danger. And the park service has continued to cite concern over devastating wildfires as a reason for discontinuing the event until now.
She also notes that, in the event of some kind of catastrophe, evacuating the large crowd would be highly difficult, writing, “The anticipated traffic congestion and gridlock could last for hours before and after the event, compounded by visitors who are not familiar with the area.”
The wildfire danger posed in this particular moment was made clear earlier this week when a blaze erupted about six miles away from the monument. It took 117 fire fighters from three states to get the fire, which burned 60 acres, under control. And that one started without fireworks.
Earlier this year, Trump dismissed concerns about wildfires at Mount Rushmore. “What can burn? It’s stone,” he said.
There is also some concern about fireworks contaminating the water supply at the monument. According to a 2016 Interior Department report, past fireworks displays led to “elevated concentrations of a contaminant called perchlorate in groundwater and surface water within Mount Rushmore National Memorial.” The chemical, according to the report, “can interfere with the function of the human thyroid gland.”
Lastly, the event Friday is drawing criticism for reasons unrelated to the potential disasters it could create. Leaders of seven Sioux tribal governments have objected to the event, both for its potential to spread the coronavirus in the tribal communities, and for “glorifying white supremacy.”
“It’s an injustice to actively steal Indigenous people’s land, then carve the white faces of the colonizers who committed genocide,” Nick Tilsen, a local activist, told the AP.