The Society That Keeps Mount Rushmore Looking Solid as a Rock

The Mount Rushmore Society, a supporting organization for the popular South Dakota national monument, keeps things presidential throughout the year for visitors. Recently, the group had to step up to offer support during the federal shutdown.

President’s Day, taking place February 18, may make you think of Mount Rushmore, but not so many people will make the trip to South Dakota’s Black Hills that day to see the iconic presidential facade.

The problem, of course? The weather, which isn’t particularly suited for visiting an outdoor national monument in February. (The estimated high temperature at the monument on President’s Day is 14 degrees Fahrenheit.)

But that isn’t necessarily a worry for the Mount Rushmore Society, the nonprofit—known in National Park Service terminology as a “cooperating association” and a “friends group”—that has helped to support the creation and maintenance of the park since 1930. It has plenty of other days in the year to bask in the presidential glow.

“We think every day is Presidents’ Day at Mount Rushmore,” the society’s CEO, Diana Nielsen Saathoff, said in an interview.

The organization plays multiple roles both at the park and in the local community, including helping to raise revenue that then goes into hosting programs at the park, coordinating maintenance and expansion efforts, and putting on philanthropic initiatives at the park.

Nielsen Saathoff, who previously served as the executive director of the Spearfish, South Dakota, Chamber of Commerce before first taking on a leadership role with the society two decades ago this April, says that the job has provided her with the ability to mix her experience in nonprofit leadership with a hospitality element—thanks to all the visitors who come to the park during the warmer seasons.

“There’s also the piece of how you balance the visitor experience with the long-term protection of these beautiful, iconic places,” she says.

Other things that the society has been focused on of late:

The shutdown’s impact. Like many organizations that have ties to the National Park Service, the Mount Rushmore Society acutely felt the impact of the recent partial government shutdown. Beyond the furloughed park rangers, the gift shops that the society operates were in government buildings, and during the shutdown, remained closed—cutting off a key revenue source. This type of situation affected not just the society, but other parks around the country, at an estimated cost of $4.1 million nationwide, according to the Public Lands Alliance.

She’s also concerned that national parks could still face other shutdown-related issues. “Families are trying to decide where they’re going to take their vacations,” she said. “If the parks are not deemed as a reliable destination, I think that there are going to be some longer-term effects there, too.”

While the organization tends to stay in the background in terms of messaging around the park, Nielsen Saathoff  said the shutdown necessitated a more up-front advocacy approach.

A structure of its own. Last year, the society moved into its first-ever headquarters in Rapid City, which was fully renovated for its needs. The organization spent a decade putting things into place for the endeavor, which is located on Main Street, next to a bronze statue of Teddy Roosevelt.

The result, says Nielsen Saathoff, is something that offers a “statement to the community” that they’re a part of it, and that people are welcome to stop by.

“It’s a great way for us to engage our volunteers, too,” she says, noting the front desk role that the location has created. “As we get into our first summer here, we think that’s going to be a way to really engage our membership base.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the founding date of the National Park Service. NPS was founded in 1916.

Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln adorn Mount Rushmore. (Gary Tognoni/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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