July 3 (UPI) — President and first lady Donald and Melania Trump headed to South Dakota Friday to watch the first fireworks display at Mount Rushmore National Memorial since 2009.
Trump, along with South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, plan to speak at the event, which will broadcast live on television and the Internet. The event is set to begin at 4 p.m. MDT, with Trump expected to speak at 6:45 p.m. MDT before fireworks at 9:30 p.m.
About three hours ahead of Trump’s scheduled speech, protesters gathered near the site, including blocking a key highway to the area.
About 7,500 people are expected to fill the park’s amphitheater for traditional Independence Day events all afternoon. Admittance is by ticket only. The weather is expected to be partly cloudy with a slight chance of thunderstorms.
Noem said visitors will not be required to wear masks and there will be no social distancing.
“We told those folks that have concerns that they can stay home, but those who want to come and join us, we’ll be giving out free face masks, if they choose to wear one,” she said on Fox News Monday.
Noem initially said that the return of pyrotechnics to the national park would be funded by private donations, but the state has paid the $350,000 bill for a California fireworks company from a fund for state economic development, according to a report by South Dakota Public Broadcasting.
The National Park Service canceled fireworks at Mount Rushmore for 10 years because of fears of wildfires due to beetle-kill pine trees in the area. Last week, a wildfire in Custer State Park, a few miles from the memorial, scorched 60 acres.
Local Sioux tribal members have complained that the fireworks display is an insult to the Black Hills region, which is considered sacred land under treaties signed in 1851 and 1868, according to Julian Bear Runner, president of the Oglala Sioux on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
“It’s like if he tried to go and have a fireworks display celebrating independence at the Vatican,” Bear Runner told the Washington Post.
Bear Runner and other tribal leaders have called for the removal of Mount Rushmore, which was carved into the mountains at a mountain formation known by the Sioux as the “Six Grandfathers.”
Tribal members also worry that visitors will spread COVID-19 to reservations in the area, which have few medical resources.
The National Park Service completed an environmental study in March to determine that the area was safe for a fireworks display. The report said that more than 20 wildfires had started after fireworks displays in the past. Explosions left burn marks on the sculptured heads of U.S. presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, the report said.