South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem (R-SD) has filed a lawsuit against the Biden Administration and the National Parks Service over the decision not to allow a fireworks display at Mount Rushmore to celebrate Independence Day, in defiance of the multi-year Memorandum Agreement signed in 2019 between The Department of the Interior and the State of South Dakota under the Trump Administration. 

In July 2020, despite the pandemic and after an environmental assessment determined the fireworks would not cause a significant impact, Gov. Noem hosted the first fireworks display at Mount Rushmore since 2009, when festivities were put on hold over fire concerns prompted by a pine beetle infestation. Noem and South Dakota, the only state in the country that has never imposed a mask mandate or shut businesses, hosted President Trump at a fireworks celebration on Jul. 3, 2020. The largely patriotic event was also met by a smaller group of protestors. In reestablishing the decades-long tradition at the national monument, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt declared:

“President Trump and I believe that our nation’s founding should be celebrated with the same pomp and parade that John Adams described in 1776, and having a fireworks display at Mount Rushmore once again will be an incredible spectacle for the American people to enjoy.”

In “an abrupt, 620-word letter” sent on Mar. 11, South Dakota received word that The National Park Service (NPS) denied a request from the state to hold a fireworks display at Mount Rushmore to celebrate the Fourth of July this year. NPS Regional Director Herbert Frost wrote in a letter to South Dakota Tourism Secretary Jim Hagen that NPS is “unable to grant a request to have fireworks at the Memorial.” Frost added: 

“Potential risks to the park itself and to the health and safety of employees and visitors associated with the fireworks demonstration continue to be a concern and are still being evaluated as a result of the 2020 event. In addition, the park’s many tribal partners expressly oppose fireworks at the Memorial. These factors, compiled with the COVID-19 pandemic, do not allow a safe and responsible fireworks display to be held at this site.”

On Apr. 13, after Frost reneged on SD’s Memorandum Agreement, Noem wrote a letter to President Biden informing him that the letter South Dakota received from NPS not only contradicted statements made by Biden in March (and again in April) marking The Fourth of July as a “target date for Americans to begin returning to normal,” but it also painted a very misleading picture of last year’s successful event. Noem’s letter quoted Biden, who told the nation:

“[B]y July 4th, there’s a good chance you, your families, and friends will be able to get together in your backyard or in your neighborhood and have a cookout and a barbeque and celebrate Independence Day. …After this long hard year, that will make this Independence Day something truly special, where we not only mark our independence as a nation, but we begin to mark our independence from this virus.”

Noem’s letter pointed out that facts and data disclaim concerns are listed in the NPS letter. She emphasized that last year’s celebration welcomed over seven thousand spectators. Importantly, following weeks of post-event contact tracing, not one single case of COVID-19 could be traced to the event—in South Dakota or any other state in the nation. The governor reminded Biden of the vaccination efforts that are moving more quickly than expected. She also addressed the potential tribal concerns cited in the letter and clarified: 

In South Dakota, we value the partnerships we have with each of our state’s nine tribes. Accordingly, the tribes were consulted before last year’s event and invited to attend our planning meetings. South Dakota’s Department of Tribal Relations was involved in every step of the process. And attendees of last year’s event enjoyed Native American-led programming before the fireworks itself, including a performance by Dakota Hoop Dancer Jasmin Pickner-Bell and a reading by Lakota Storyteller Darrell Red Cloud. We would also consult with tribal leaders for this year’s event and again invite them to join us to celebrate America’s birthday in 2021. 

Screenshot/South Dakota COVID-19 Dashboard May 2, 2021

Finally, Gov. Noem explained in her letter to Biden that, long before the pandemic, South Dakota agreed to limit attendance for the fireworks to avoid overcrowding. The state also holds the event on Jul. 3, so Independence Day on Jul. 4 is free for everyone to enjoy. Noem elaborated on the extensive measures undertaken by her administration to ensure last year’s event was held safely and responsibly:

  • SD worked with the U.S. Dept. of the Interior on all required environmental reviews.
  • SD followed every item on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) checklist.
  • SD held multiple community meetings and public hearings leading up to the event.
  • SD created a “Go/No-Go Checklist” with conditions that must be met on the day of the event, including fire preparedness levels, wind speeds, and burning index. This list was reviewed regularly and signed by the Interior Department on the day of the event.
  • SD implemented an incident management team that met every guideline outlined by Ready.gov.
  • SD had an emergency operations center on-site for two weeks—one week leading up to the event and one week after.
  • SD created and adhered to an emergency response checklist and manual.
  • SD assigned specific solicitors to handle First Amendment permits and accommodations.

According to Noem, the Biden administration indicated that it would “circle back” to her regarding the request. Nonetheless, she received no response and is suing the administration to “get the fireworks” back. The claim alleges the “vague and speculative” DOI letter contained no specific factual findings, referenced no implementing laws or governing regulations, and included no discussion of any other objective determinations. Noem asks the court to enjoin the Department of Interior’s denial of the firework’s permit and order it to issue a permit for the event expeditiously. Ian Fury, Noem’s communications director, spoke of the situation:

“Governor Noem is going to do everything in her ability to ensure that we can celebrate America’s birthday with fireworks at Mount Rushmore. The best place in America to hold such a special celebration would be Mount Rushmore, fireworks included.”