You’ve no doubt heard about it. It gives new meaning to the word “misadventure.”
Forrest Fenn, millionaire antiquarian — and person of interest in a federal grave-robbing and artifact-poaching probe — self-published a book years ago about his lifetime of derring-do.
No one would have ever heard of the book, had it not contained a bit of doggerel, which people charitably call a poem, that supposedly contains clues to a stash of gold and jewels that Fenn says he buried for others to find. (To read it, follow the link at the bottom of this post.)
Whether he actually did this is doubtful. What his motivations might be, if he did indeed do it, are dubious.
But people are taking it seriously anyway. Not since Oak Island has a rumor taken hold in the popular imagination to create a meme that, on its surface, is about attaining wealth but, at its core, is about desperate hope and frustration.
I have a hard time deciding whether it’s just a silly diversion or a cruel hoax. But as a person who cares about wilderness, historical resources, and simply other people, I wanted to give all of you potential treasure-hunters out there some things to consider.
1. What Fenn is asking you to do is dangerous. A 33-year-old woman hoofed it all the way from Carrollton, Texas, to the Santa Fe National Forest to search for the supposed prize, and 7 miles into her exploration, she got hopelessly lost. It took three aircraft, a team of rescue workers and a pack of search dogs to find her. It was a perverse errand into the wilderness.
2. When asked whether his secret cache was buried on public land, Fenn told the Daily Beast the answer was “too big of a clue.” Which could be read to mean either — and only — “it doesn’t matter because the whole thing’s a ruse” or “yes.”
Obviously, even if the treasure weren’t a maguffin, the guy’s not going to point you to someone’s private property. Or maybe he would; I never met him, so I don’t know. But he’s made such a big deal about Yellowstone in the past that to admit it’s on public land would be a dead giveaway.
So if you’re going to take the bait and start digging up national park or forest or BLM land, you should probably sock away some bail money and keep your lawyer’s number in your pocket. ‘Cause digging on state or federal land without permission is illegal.
3. And even if you do manage to secure a permit for taking part in Fenn’s publicity stunt, you can’t keep whatever you find.
I can hear you already, libertarians and Blue Ribbon Coalitioners — yeah, the American people own the land, but that means everyone owns it and what’s on it. It’s owned by public trust, not individual right, so you can’t go spading over soil there because you think it’s yours. Moreover, you won’t own any Dominican cigar box full of costume jewelry that you happen to find there, any more than you, personally, own the natural gas that’s being extracted from that same public land by oil companies.
If you don’t like it, go find a country that doesn’t have a government, because that’s how government works.
To give you a sense of how fully aware Fenn is that this is illegal, and what little concern he has for you if you get caught, he recently said of this issue: “I’m staying out of those discussions, except to say it may be fun to redefine some of the terms.”
4. Fun. In addition to the prospects of finding yourself stranded in the Sangre de Cristos dying of dehydration, or arrested on federal felony charges, what seems least “fun” about this whole misadventure is that it threatens very real, and literally irreplaceable, archaeological resources.
Western public lands are this country’s greatest repository of historical records — both human-made and not. Just in the Four Corners area alone, there are uncounted ruins of pithouses, tool-making sites, cliff dwellings and seasonal encampments going back a millennium and more.
I’ve been lucky enough to see some sites in Northern New Mexico that have never been excavated — not dissembled and mortared back together like you find in most national parks — and the experience of witnessing history in such places is unmatchable.
I’m not alone in my enthusiasm for this, which is why, under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, hunting for artifacts on public land is also a federal felony.
Clearly, Fenn doesn’t care about this either. Conceiving of the past in a way that doesn’t serve personal gain just isn’t “fun.”
5. You have about as much a chance of finding hidden treasure using Fenn’s poem as you do of finding Jimmy Hoffa’s remains by poring over the New York Giants’ passing stats over the past 30 years.
To see what I mean, you can read Fenn’s buried treasure poem here.