Federal agency charged South Dakota taxpayers for Noem to host Trump at Mount Rushmore

Capitol News Bureau

Fireworks light the sky at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Friday, July 3, 2020, near Keystone, S.D., after President Donald Trump spoke. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Folks lucky enough to win tickets to get into Mount Rushmore National Memorial last July 3 didn’t have to pay, other than a $1 handling fee, for the privilege of seeing South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem host U.S. President Donald Trump for a rare fireworks show.

Instead, the employers of South Dakota took care of part of the $1.5 million bill, and the people of South Dakota unwittingly took care of the rest. Who got the money? The fireworks vendor, Pyro Spectaculars Inc., received $350,000 from the state’s Future Fund, a grant program controlled by the governor that most employers have to pay into as part of their unemployment insurance. But KELOLAND News has found that the biggest chunk went to the federal agency responsible for managing the monument, the National Park Service.

State government spending records filed with the state auditor office show the Republican governor’s administration authorized transfers totaling $470,000 — $300,000 on July 1, 2020, and $170,000 on July 22, 2020 — to the NPS office in Omaha, Nebraska. That information wasn’t previously disclosed.

Page 10 of State of South Dakota spending records Mount Rushmore
Contributed to DocumentCloud by Eric Mayer (KELO-TV) • View document or read text

The $300,000 invoice included a page listing eight categories. They ranged from $133,694 for NPS law enforcement travel and overtime, to $4,000 for credential printing. There wasn’t an itemized list as part of the $170,000 invoice.

Fireworks returned to the public grounds of Mount Rushmore as a way to honor the Republican president, who at the time was running for re-election, and whose speech that night turned into a dark commentary on current American politics.

“Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children. Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities,” Trump said.

The monument was closed to the public on July 3 because of Trump’s visit. How the governor and the president came together on the event dated back more than two years.

President Trump visited Sioux Falls in 2018 to raise money for Noem’s election campaign. After she won, Noem at a White House visit on December 13, 2018, spoke to Trump about going to Mount Rushmore. Noem and then-U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt started working out the plan.

The history of the memorial hosting a July night of fireworks each year began in 1998 and continued through 2009 as a visual celebration of the nation’s independence. No show was held in 2002 because of elevated fire risk. The National Park Service discontinued the display in 2010, amid concern about dangers from fire and groundwater pollution.

Noem and Bernhardt signed a memorandum on May 6, 2019, agreeing South Dakota could use Mount Rushmore for fireworks on July 3, 4 or 5, 2020. An environmental analysis came next, followed by a finding of no significant impact if fireworks resumed.

Noem’s office distributed a statement on May 1, 2020, confirming that Trump would come to South Dakota for the July 3 show. On June 15, 2020, South Dakota’s deputy secretary of tourism, Wanda Goodman, signed the agreement for a special use permit with Patricia Trap, the then-superintendent at Mount Rushmore, and Herbert Frost, the National Park Service regional director.

The South Dakota Department of Tourism issued a news release after the July 3 event stating that state government spent approximately $1.5 million, and received more than $22 million of global media exposure, saw approximately $2 million in direct spending and took in about $160,000 of tax revenue.

A KELOLAND News story reported much of the itemized spending. Approximately a half-million dollars was still unaccounted.

Trump was the latest U.S. president to attend an event at Mount Rushmore while still in the White House. President George H.W. Bush visited the memorial on July 3, 1991, to mark its 50th anniversary with a daytime speech. Other presidents included Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953 and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937. Calvin Coolidge spoke there in 1927 as the carving of faces began.

Regional director Frost wrote the March 11, 2021, letter to the state Department of Tourism saying the National Park Service had changed its mind.

“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,” he stated.

His denial letter also noted that “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,” Frost wrote. 

The governor, who campaigned last year for Trump in a variety of other states, took issue with the decision and in an April 13, 2021, tweet challenged President Joe Biden, a Democrat.

“President Biden held up Independence Day as a target date to ‘mark our Independence from this virus.’ What better way to celebrate than with fireworks at Mount Rushmore?” Noem asked, over a Fox News story about it.

Noem had promoted South Dakota as an open state during the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning that she didn’t issue a mask mandate or force businesses to close. Many in the July 3 crowd didn’t wear masks.

She made her point again in a second tweet later that same day of April 13 — “What better way to celebrate America’s birthday and our ‘Independence from this virus’?” — over a photo of the fireworks rocketing above the granite likenesses of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

That photo now is at the top of her governor’s Twitter account.

Noem also issued a news release about the dispute that day — which was Thomas Jefferson’s birthday — and included a link to her written response to President Biden.

KELOLAND News asked her communications director whether she interpreted the word ‘beginning’ that appears on page two of the 2019 memorandum with the then-Interior secretary as being in effect for 2021 and beyond. “That is correct,” Ian Fury replied.

State Tourism officials were asked several questions Monday and Tuesday by KELOLAND News for this story. They were busy with other duties and were working on responses, according to a spokesperson.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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