PIERRE, S.D. — A federal judge has dismissed a legal effort by South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem to reverse a Biden administration decision to cancel the July Fourth fireworks this year at Mount Rushmore, citing federal authority over the park and its "long-term interests," including partnership with local tribal nations.
U.S. District Court of South Dakota Judge Roberto Lange, an Obama appointee, wrote in a 36-page opinion that while he empathized with the governor ultimately the decision to reject a special use permit rested with officials at the Department of Interior. That department earlier this year informed state officials of their decision to deny that permit citing a range of factors, including concerns over public health, the environment, and opposition from "tribal partners."
Well over a dozen attorneys general filed friend-of-the-court briefs calling for a fireworks celebration at the granite sculpture in the Black Hills as a nation emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic.
"A fireworks display at Mount Rushmore on July 3, on first blush, seems like a good way to celebrate the Independence Day weekend," Lange writes, saying the nation deserves a "good celebration" after overcoming the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and the half-a-million-plus U.S. deaths from the coronavirus.
But he notes the federal court cannot "mandate issuance" of a permit requiring a fireworks display, saying the National Park Service provided nearly half-a-dozen reasons for withholding this year's fireworks on the stony monument, prioritizing "long-term interests" over "short-term interests."
It was particularly the tribal concern, voiced when Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe joined the lawsuit as defendants last month, that Lange said spoke to the potential detrimental effects of such a pyrotechnic show to culturally important land.
"The Lakota sentiment toward the carvings runs the gamut from inspiring feelings of patriotic pride to a sense of desecration of their sacred land and the mountain they call Six Grandfathers," wrote Lange, who noted previous archaeological surveys have turned up prehistoric cultural sites within the 1,200-acre boundaries of the memorial.
He said Cheyenne River Sioux and Lakota tribes — "as well as those looking out for the long-term interests of the Memorial" — provided good reason to oppose the fireworks display this summer.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial, an iconic and colossal mountaintop carving in western South Dakota, sits on land sacred to many Lakota and other Native American nations.
Fireworks were ended by officials under the Obama administration, in large part due to concerns about the ongoing beetle epidemic that had left the ponderosa forest — a natural hallmark to the region — vulnerable to wildfire.
A separate survey later discovered increased perchlorate toxins in the park's waterways. The memorial, which includes both the granite outcrop and forests, is managed by the NPS, which is housed within the Department of Interior.
In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the state of South Dakota hosted a tourism bonanza at Mount Rushmore, replete with over 7,000 ticketed attendees, a presidential visit from Donald Trump, and a firework explosion.
In their brief, an attorney for Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe had noted the tribe's objections in 2020 and 2021 to Noem's plan to bring fireworks back to the mountain.
Noem filed a lawsuit against Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in late April after the National Park Service's decision to void a memorandum of agreement issued two years earlier that appeared to clear the way for fireworks beginning in 2020.
"I am disappointed that the court gave cover to this unlawful action with today's decision," said a statement attributed to Noem, who vowed the "fight is not over."
But Lange ruled that Noem's attorney's arguments on congressional discretion had "virtually no support in existing law," and further suggested claims that the National Park Service hadn't provided a good explanation for denying the permit faulty.
Rather, Lange said, the park service provided "five legitimate bases" for denying the permit, though he noted concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic — on their own — would not have been enough to forestall the show given the rapid improvement in the nation's pandemic posture since mid-March.