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Future for fireworks at Rushmore not bright

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Seth A. McConnell/Journal staff: Crowds gathered in the Avenune of Flags as fireworks light up the night sky over Mt. Rushmore National Memorial Tuesday night during the 10th annual Heartland of America Independence Day Celebration at the Shrine of Democracy.

As long as pine beetles are killing trees in the Southern Hills, there likely won't be fireworks shows at Mount Rushmore, according to officials at the national monument.

"The health of the forest will remain a concern; everybody knows that," Ace Crawford, a spokeswoman at Mount Rushmore, said Thursday.

The July 3 Independence Day holiday fireworks show has been canceled for the past two years because of fire concerns driven by the infestation, which is killing thousands of trees on about 400,000 acres of the 1.2 million-acre Black Hills National Forest.

Eliminating the pest is expected to take years and cost millions of dollars, which puts the future of the fireworks show, which started in 1998, in doubt.

Rushmore Superintendant Cheryl Schreier said this week that the threat of fireworks starting a fire is simply too great a risk for the thousands of people who visit the monument on the Fourth of July.

In 2009 -- the last year there was a fireworks display at the national park -- 43,664 people visited Rushmore on July 3, according to the National Park Service. In 2010, with the show canceled, 33,866 people visited the park. Figures for 2011 are not yet available.

The Rapid City Downtown Association, which spent $30,000 for a fireworks show this year at Memorial Park, said Mount Rushmore officials have indicated they will not hold a fireworks show in the immediate future.

"The attitude has been that until the pine beetle infestation is under control, we'll continue to see them canceled," Sandy Schwan, the organization's executive director, said Thursday. "The fireworks at Mount Rushmore are indefinitely postponed. It's not about how much rain we get. It all comes down to the pine beetle, and I think we have a number of years before it's under control."

Historically, pine beetle epidemics in the Black Hills have lasted from 11 to 20 years, according to Frank Carroll, spokesman for the Black Hills National Forest. Technically, officials are in year 14 of this battle, and ever-encroaching beetles have taken larger bites out of the 1.2-million-acre forest each year.

"The prognosis, at least for the moment, does not look good," Carroll said. "The trend appears to be going up. Scientific research suggests it could last for another six or seven years, and that's been documented before. The epidemic around the Black Hills isn't expected to wane anytime soon."

Although Rushmore has been without the pyrotechnics show for two years, tourists from around world continue to ask about the fireworks, said Bonnetta Nedved, executive director of the Keystone Chamber of Commerce.

"I think there is a disappointment for those who have seen it on TV and want to see it in person, but there are a lot of fireworks displays," Nedved said. "They're not as grand of scale, but you can still see what other towns offer."

Another consequence of the cancellations has been the creation of a more extended celebration, which has worked fine for Keystone businesses.

"Instead of doing all their shopping on the 2nd or 4th they're doing it all weekend, so it's evened out," Nedved said. "When you take into account the whole weekend, shopping has returned to what it used to be."

While Rapid City's festival has enjoyed growth, likely due in part to the cancellation, officials say they'll be ready for the fireworks over the Shrine of Democracy to return.

"We've officially committed to doing it on the Fourth, so when Mount Rushmore resumes, there won't be any conflict, and there will be two complete days of celebration," Schwan said.

Contact Nick Penzenstadler at 394-8415 or nick.penzenstadler@rapidcityjournal.com

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