South Dakota governor sues for fireworks at Mount Rushmore

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem sued the U.S. Department of Interior on Friday in an effort to see fireworks shot over Mount Rushmore National Monument on Independence Day.

The Republican governor successfully pushed last year for a return of the pyrotechnic display after a decadelong hiatus. The event drew national attention when former President Donald Trump joined Noem on July 3 to give a fiery speech. But the state’s application to hold fireworks this year was denied by the National Park Service, which cited safety concerns and objections from local Native American tribes.

Noem’s lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for South Dakota, argues that the decision was “arbitrary and capricious” and violated the powers granted to the agency in the Constitution. The state last year signed an agreement with the Trump administration and the Department of the Interior to work towards returning the pyrotechnic display this year.

Mount Rushmore is a huge tourism draw for the state, but it has also been a source of tension between the state and local Lakota tribes. Local activists have called for the monument to be returned to tribal control, pointing out the surrounding Black Hills were taken from the tribes in violation of treaties.

Last year’s event drew concerns about wildfires set off by the fireworks, as well as protests from Lakota activists. Fireworks were canceled after 2009 because of fire danger from a pine beetle infestation.

Noem’s attorneys argue in the lawsuit that the surrounding forest has sufficiently recovered from the pine beetle infestation. But last month the park service had to close the monument for several days as firefighters battled wildfires within the park grounds. The wildfires in part prompted Noem to declare a state of emergency until June, citing “widespread drought conditions, low humidity, high wind and high temperatures that create serious peril for our state.”

But the governor in court filings invoked a spirit of patriotism to argue the show should go on, quoting former presidents from John Adams to George H.W. Bush.

“Mount Rushmore is the very best place to celebrate America’s birthday and all that makes our country special,” Noem said in a statement. “After telling us they’d ‘circle back,’ the Biden administration has not responded to our request to uphold the Memorandum of Agreement ... to host a safe and responsible national celebration and fireworks show.”

The governor, closely allied to Trump, has headlined conservative events around the nation and is considered to be a potential name on the 2024 GOP presidential ticket. Last year’s Mount Rushmore event gave Noem an opportunity to enter Trump’s orbit as she joined him on the flight back to Washington.

Stephen is a correspondent based in South Dakota.