Judge Keeps Independence Day Mount Rushmore Fireworks Show on Ice for 2021

A federal judge denied South Dakota’s request for a special permit to hold the show after the state’s governor says the Biden administration backed out of a deal struck by Biden’s predecessor over the event.

In this July 3, 2020, file photo, fireworks light the sky over the Mount Rushmore National Memorial near Keystone, S.D. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

(CN) — This year’s Fourth of July weekend will see no fireworks show at Mount Rushmore following a legal battle between the state’s Republican governor and the Biden administration.

Last year, Mount Rushmore played host to an event some suspected it would never hold again: a fireworks display commemorating the United State’s Independence Day. Despite being cancelled indefinitely a decade ago over increased risk of wildfires following a widespread infestation of pine beetles that decimated the local forests, the state’s Republican Governor Kristi Noem landed a deal with the Trump administration to bring the event back for 2020 — with then-President Donald Trump in attendance.

But when the state went back to the Department of the Interior this year to renew the permit to hold the event, the feds denied the request. The National Park Service cited worries over the park itself as well as Covid-19 safety concerns for the employees and visitors in attendance in its decision.

Following the denial in March, Noem quickly filed a lawsuit against Biden administration officials with claims that the government unfairly pulled out of a fair deal struck with the Trump administration and asked the court to reverse the permit denial.  

“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 the lawsuit was filed. “Unfortunately, the new administration departed from precedent and reneged on this agreement without any meaningful explanation.”

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Roberto Lange, an Obama appointee, rejected Noem’s request and said that fireworks will remain a no-show at Mount Rushmore this year.

In the 36-page ruling, Lange wrote that, on its face, a firework celebration at one of America’s most recognizable sites seems like a welcome one. After a year that saw a deadly pandemic sweep the globe, an armed insurrection at the United States Capitol and ever-deepening partisan divides on crucial issues facing the country today, the judge said a celebration of unity on the Fourth of July might be exactly what the country is craving.

But Lange said figuring out if a fireworks show would be an enjoyable treat is not a task that falls under the court’s job description and notes the court is not interested in ordering such a permit in defiance of the law.

“It would be improper judicial activism for this Court to disregard settled law establishing the arbitrary and capricious standard for review of the fireworks permit denial and to mandate issuance of such a permit,” the ruling states.

And the law, according to the judge, is on the park service’s side in this case. For Noem to prevail on her claims, she would need to show that the feds acted arbitrarily and without a reasonable explanation when they denied her permit.

But the judge says the agency was quite upfront regarding its reasoning behind the denial. The park service outlined in a letter to the state the concerns it had for the safety of the park and those in attendance during a pandemic, with the letter noting that last year’s display saw few attendees wearing face coverings at a time when wearing masks is required at national parks whenever social distancing is not an option.

With Noem unable to show how the feds acted arbitrarily, or how their decision would bring about any kind of harm, the judge said his hands were tied. Lange said the court acknowledges where the governor is coming from and appreciates any effort to promote unity and celebration in a divided nation, but her claims simply don’t pass legal muster.

“This Court fully understands the State’s position and why this suit was brought, but under governing law, the State is unlikely to succeed on the merits of its claims and has not met the requirements for the sort of mandatory injunction or writ of mandamus sought,” the ruling states.

Representatives for Noem and the Department of the Interior did not immediately respond to request for comment Wednesday evening.

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