KEYSTONE – If you visit Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the next week or so, you might notice people moving around up on top.

Look hard. That is as close as you are going to get. It is also the only view available.

A trip to the top of Mount Rushmore is a tough ticket, especially these days. Tighter access measures were imposed following a security breach in July of 2009 that allowed a group of Greenpeace protesters to scale the granite sculpture and unfurl a huge protest banner on climate change.

That ended periodic access for the news media, which offered views from the top and provided coverage of such activities as annual maintenance work that can now be seen only from long distance. Security upgrades also ended the practice of allowing other types of tours, which once gave then-U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, for example, a chance to take a group of his political donors to the top of the memorial.

Following the Greenpeace protest, changes in security at Mount Rushmore included limiting access and avoiding the general circulation of video and images of the top taken by visitors. National Park Service officials now believe dissemination of such images constitutes an unjustifiable threat to security.

Now images are tightly limited and only Park Service staffers with specific duties can go to the top. That is a policy Mount Rushmore superintendent Cheryl Schreier expects to endure.

“Long term, that’s not likely to change,” Schreier said Tuesday. “Now it’s normally limited to our employees with specific reasons to be up there. Our law enforcement people do mountain patrols, or if there’s maintenance work needed, things like that.”

A special work crew for the memorial will be on top of the mountain during the next week or so, performing maintenance and repairs to protect the sculpture. That is important work since even the seemingly impermeable 1.6-billion-year-old granite can crack and crumble under the forces of time and the relentless extremes of South Dakota weather.

The crew looks for new cracks to repair and improves the seal on old ones, among other duties up on the high ground.

“They use a silicone-based caulking material to seal cracks,” said Maureen McGee Ballinger, director of interpretation and education at Mount Rushmore. “They have a few larger cracks covered with Kevlar material and then sealed with the silicone caulk.”

The crew is made up of about 10 Mount Rushmore staff members trained in repair duties performed in potentially hazardous conditions.

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 “It’s similar to rock climbing, but highly technical and high-angle-type training,” Schreier said.

The dual-rope system hooks technicians to a working line and a backup safety line as they work on the surface of the sculpture.

The work includes close inspection of the rock for signs of developing problems. Crew members watch for rocks that might become dangerous and clean vegetation out of cracks.

“If vegetation is allowed to stay there, it can add to the expansion of those joints,” Schreier said.

While the preservation and maintenance work proceeds, the memorial will remain open with typical facilities available to visitors. Parts of the Presidential Trail past the base of the mountain will be closed periodically for movement of equipment.

Visitors were already commenting on the movements of the crew Tuesday, McGee-Ballinger said.

“We’ve had a lot of interest today because they would see the people on top,” she said.

There wasn’t much interest among the visitors, however, in actually seeing the top personally -- at least not in the roped-up work situation of the preservation crew.

 “Many of them were saying they liked where they were better than where the crew was,” McGee-Ballinger said.

Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or Kevin.woster@rapidcityjournal.com


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