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Despite virus and wildfire risks, Trump plans a big fireworks fund-raiser at Mount Rushmore

Sunrise at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, near Keystone, S.D.
Sunrise at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, near Keystone, S.D. Laura Rauch/Associated Press/File 2002/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Trump is planning a massive fireworks display at Mount Rushmore on July 3, despite a decade-long ban on pyrotechnics at the iconic spot because of concerns about public health and environmental and safety risks.

Trump has wanted to stage fireworks at the national memorial in South Dakota’s Black Hills since 2018, according to two individuals familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. But the idea was scuttled or delayed by a number of his advisers, these individuals said.

The National Park Service stopped staging pyrotechnics at Mount Rushmore in 2010 out of concern that they could ignite wildfires during drought conditions. The memorial is surrounded by 1,200 acres of forested land, including ponderosa pines, and lies next to the Black Hills National Forest’s Black Elk Wilderness.

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On Thursday, a wildfire was burning about six miles from Mount Rushmore. The fire, which started in Custer State Park on Wednesday, burned an estimated 150 acres and was only 25 percent contained Thursday morning.

Ian Fury, a spokesman for South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, a Republican, said in an e-mail that the National Park Service had concluded the holiday event would not harm the environment and conducted a controlled burn earlier this month to reduce brush that could fuel a wildfire.

‘‘We are confident that the Rushmore Fireworks celebration can be conducted safely,’’ Fury said, adding that organizers are monitoring weather forecasts. The Interior Department has positioned firefighting resources at the site, according to a senior department official.

Neither federal nor state officials have imposed social distancing requirements for the gathering. The state tourism department, which is distributing 7,500 tickets, has estimated that it has had requests for at least 125,000.

One senior Interior official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said the department is following state health guidelines and is taking steps to reflect recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This includes signs throughout the park urging visitors to wear a cloth face covering when it is impossible to keep six feet away from others, and providing face coverings for all of its employees.

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South Dakota’s total number of coronavirus cases, 6,419, far surpasses North Dakota’s 3,362 cases — though their populations are nearly identical. South Dakota’s rate of 720 cases per 100,000 compares to a rate of 436 per 100,000 for its northern neighbor, according to the CDC.

The county with the highest overall concentration of positive cases, Minnehana, with about 3,500, is on South Dakota’s eastern border, far from the memorial near the western border.

The celebration at Mount Rushmore is just one of several large gatherings the president has orchestrated this summer. In the past week he has held events in Oklahoma and Arizona, and he is planning a scaled-back ‘‘Salute to America’’ honoring the military on the South Lawn July 4.

On Tuesday, Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified before a House committee that Americans should not participate in large-scale gatherings if they can avoid doing so, because such activities could widen the spread of the coronavirus.

‘‘Plan A: Don’t go in a crowd. Plan B: If you do, make sure you wear a mask,’’ Fauci told lawmakers.

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White House spokesman Judd Deere said in an e-mail that the White House’s operations branch consulted with the physician’s office and military office in planning the trip.

‘‘The President looks forward to taking part in the Independence Day festivities, hosted by Governor Noem, and celebrating the greatest country the world has ever known capped off with a magnificent fireworks display above the great faces of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln,’’ Deere said. ‘‘The President takes the health and safety of everyone traveling in support of himself and all White House operations very seriously.’’

Trump’s reelection campaign is also leveraging the South Dakota trip to fill its coffers, according to fund-raising invitations obtained by The Washington Post. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway will appear as ‘‘special guests’’ at two high-dollar fund-raisers in the days before the event in Rapid City, S.D., and Gallatin Gateway, Mont., along with Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend, campaign senior adviser Kimberly Giulfoyle.

The June 30-July 2 retreat in Montana will feature activities like shooting and fly-fishing, according to the invitation, while the ‘‘Rapid City Roundup’’ will be July 2-3. Tickets to the events range from $250 for a single-day attendee in Rapid City to between $250 and $100,000 for access to both events.

Cheryl Schreier, superintendent at Mount Rushmore from September 2010 to May 2019, said that having so many people on a small tract poses ‘‘public health and safety risks, not only to the visitors but to employees.’’

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‘‘It’s a bad idea based on the wildland fire risk,” she said, “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.’’

Schreier added that tourists will be barred from the park on July 3.


Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.