Mount Rushmore construction forces graduation to Hill City

Leslie Silverman

In a Keystone Happenings Facebook page post entitled “Sounding pretty hopeful,” local business owner Tim Johnson posted a link to an article from the Dec. 19 Washington Examiner in which President Donald Trump promises to Gov. Kristi Noem to bring fireworks back to Mount Rushmore.

This created sparks on social media, including from Hill City School Board member Angie Ross.

“Wondering how this can happen?” Ross posted. “We can’t graduate up there this year because they are behind schedule but fireworks that will bring in (five) times the amount of people to the mountain alone?”

Johnson replied to Ross’ comment with, “I was told it would mostly be done from a visitation standpoint by June.”

However according to park spokesperson Maureen McGee Ballinger, “We are currently under construction. It is anticipated that the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center, the Avenue of Flags and the amphitheater portion of construction will be completed by late spring or early summer. However, we can not (sic) guarantee that time-frame. Winter weather could significantly impact construction plans or new factors could come to light that may delay the progress.  Until those areas reopen, the amphitheater would not be available to schedule public use.”

McGee did not directly answer the question posed of no longer allowing the Hill City graduation to take place at the Memorial but added, “We are currently not taking any Special Use Permit requests until the amphitheater can be reopened.”

As for the return of fireworks, McGee said, “On May 6 the Department of the Interior and the State of South Dakota signed an agreement to work to reinstate a fireworks display at Mount Rushmore National Memorial for Fourth of July celebrations starting in the year 2020. The National Park Service (NPS) is committed to working with the state and other land management agencies, exercising our full authorities under state and federal law, to explore and develop safe and responsible options in regard to the proposal.”

According to the NPS website, the plan to bring back fireworks is in step two, the “refine alternatives” phase. There are eight steps to the process, including a “Public review of draft plan/environmental document” phase.”

The park website states there will be an opportunity for public comment in early 2020.

Emails to Denice Swank, acting superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Memorial, were not returned.

“This will be (two) years not being up there and they haven’t been the most inviting about it in recent years....would hate to lose this privilege because of new management that isn’t informed on the history!” Ross wrote on the Keystone Happenings Faecbook page.

That history was brought up at the most recent Keystone Town Board meeting by Keystone trustee Kwinn Neff.

“I learned something from Facebook,” Neff said. “I guess there’s some concern about Mount Rushmore bringing back the Hill City High School graduation after construction is done up there. They have a new superintendent and I don’t know how familiar they are with the history. I think she’s just new. Hill City Rangers we have Smokey the Bear as the mascot. We’re the only school in the country to get that mascot from the (United States Forest Service). Basically Hill City High School defended the town from a fire and because of their actions we have that mascot and I think we’ve been graduating at Mount Rushmore ever since.”

Blake Gardner, superintendent of the Hill City School District, responded to the situation by saying “The Hill City School District has been in communication with the Mount Rushmore superintendents’ office regarding graduation for the class of 2020.  Construction at the monument will not be completed prior to graduation and therefore the class of 2020 will hold commencement ceremonies in the Gins’ Gymnasium at the Hill City School District. We look forward to working with Mount Rushmore to resume graduation at the monument once the construction is complete.”

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