Friday, July 9, 2010

Looking back one year later: Greenpeace crashes family visit to Mt. Rushmore

I wrote the following piece exactly one year ago during a family vacation to Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota’s Black Hills.
My family took advantage of the Fourth of July weekend and headed west to the Black Hills. Prairie dogs, caves, Badlands, Harney Peak, buffalo, Lakota and Custer history – the works. My three boys acted like they’d died and gone to heaven. A week later, the 4-year-old still refuses to remove his new cowboy boots. Of course, no trip to the Black Hills is complete without a couple of hours at Mount Rushmore, and we picked quite a day. If you’ve followed the news, you know that Greenpeace visited the “Shrine of Democracy” last Wednesday. We saw the whole stunt unfold.
Early risers, my parents and wife and kids arrived at Rushmore at 8:30 a.m., snapped the obligatory family photos, then walked the short, highly accessible trail to the base. (En route, I chuckled at one gentleman demanding of a park official, “Where’s the escalator?!” Sadly, he wasn’t joking.…) We returned to the main observation deck, and were about to leave when we noticed people in hardhats atop the monument. Mount Rushmore of course requires routine maintenance, but the midmorning, peak visitor timing struck us as odd. Other visitors queried park staffers, but no one behaved like it was out of the ordinary. After browsing the gift shop, however, we took a last look. A massive banner – adjacent to and as large as Abe Lincoln’s head – was unfurling in high winds with a message challenging the Obama adminstration’s apparently lackadaisical approach to global warming. “America Honors Leaders, Not Politicians: Stop Global Warming.”
“Uhhh, I don’t think they have a permit for that,” I told my dad. Pretty soon news cameras arrived and hundreds, maybe a couple of thousand visitors stood around in disbelief. Many lamented the protestors ruining their photo ops and visit to Rushmore. I traded a few barbs with a highly offended gentleman ranting aloud that park officials should “Throw those protestors off the mountain!” “That’s what they’d do in China or Iran,” I quipped. (Let’s just say the gentleman didn’t like that.) As the minutes ticked by, I became increasingly amazed that Greenpeace had pulled off the stunt and the 2,275-square-foot banner remained up for more than an hour.
It definitely was irritating, and I hope the courts don’t let the protestors off easy. After rappelling down, 11 people (including a Minnesotan) were charged with trespassing – a charge punishable by up to six months in prison and a $5,000 fine. From news reports, it appears the protestors used existing maintenance anchors in the monument for rappelling. They didn’t harm the face of the monument, but they apparently damaged some security systems en route while scaling it, and that delayed rangers’ response. Park Service officials tell me they recognized the breach within minutes but aren’t revealing much else, because they fear other potential protestors could use such information for their own shenanigans.
At a press conference last Thursday, monument officials said “all security measures functioned exactly as designed.” Uh, what exactly is happening at our national monuments when – in this era of homeland security – a dozen Greenpeace punks can have the run of the place for 90 minutes in broad daylight? During peak tourist season! What could have happened if a group with more nefarious intents had breached the monument? Here’s betting that NPS brass said a little prayer last week thanking the good lord that this incident wasn’t more serious.
This scribe has visited Mount Rushmore four times, and my family certainly will never forget our visit on July 8, 2009. I just hope the NPS pulls its head out of the sand and ensures the monument is properly protected for future generations.
The 11 Greenpeacers eventually all pleaded guilty to the charge of climbing Mt. Rushmore and received a fine of $460 each. They also had to perform some community service in the National Park system. There had been three additional charges originally brought against three of the protesters, but those were all dismissed. One protester was sentenced to two days of jail time.