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Fenn not to blame for treasure hunter tragedies

SANTA FE, N.M. — It’s easy to understand why State Police Chief Pete Kassetas wants Forrest Fenn, the Santa Fe antiquities collector/dealer and author, to call off his nationally famous treasure hunt.

There’s no way to know for sure how many people have become fascinated with the chest that Fenn says holds more than $1 million worth of gold coins and other valuable stuff. He says it’s hidden somewhere north of Santa Fe in the Rocky Mountain West and that it can be found following clues in a poem he published in a biographical book in 2010.

Coverage on the television networks and by just about every major news organization in the country has driven up interest – who can resist the idea of a modern-day treasure hunt amid the splendors of Western scenery? The state tourism office has done its part to pitch the Fenn mystery as a reason to come to New Mexico.

Thousands have probably gone looking for the hidden loot. Many are visibly hooked on websites dedicated to the search. People exchange ideas about where the treasure may be and the meaning of various lines in the Fenn poem.

And on the theory that Fenn never does anything that isn’t about the treasure, some hunters also try to interpret just about anything he says or writes or has ever written about any subject, and even the pictures he’s posted of his backyard or the inside of his home, seeking hints.

The behavior of some Fenn cultists veers into the obsessive and bizarre – one man thought the treasure was really Fenn’s daughter and stalked her. Fenn had to get a restraining order against another fan.

Fenn’s poem seems to many of us so vague as to defy any real “solve” – a non-noun adopted by treasure hunters to mean a solution to Fenn’s puzzle – and it’s tempting to speculate that somebody will stumble over the antique chest before an actual treasure hunter figures out the clues. This suggestion, however, goes up against a significant number of people who say they absolutely, positively know where the poem leads to and that Fenn either never hid a treasure, that he has retrieved it already or that the treasure is in a place that’s off limits. There’s a nasty side to at least a few obsessives who accuse Fenn of mendacity.

But Chief Kassetas, of course, is most interested in two tragedies among the treasure seekers. In separate incidents, twolooking for the treasure along the Rio Grande have died, the most recent death taking place earlier this month. The first occurred when a treasure hunter got on a raft west of Santa Fe in January 2016.

Kassetas says Fenn’s hunt is risking lives, and that having to search for missing treasure hunters is expensive and time-consuming.

But Fenn’s story of hidden treasure really is just another reason for people to go outdoors. People also die kayaking, rafting, hiking just for recreation or even just posing for pictures on cliffs at the Grand Canyon or Yosemite. Hunters shoot fellow hunters.

Only Fenn seems to know if he really hid a treasure or has some ulterior motive for stirring all this up. But he shouldn’t be blamed for accidents that happen when people choose to go looking for something to do that doesn’t involve screens or pavement. If Fenn is considered culpable, maybe Kassetas’ next call should be to the National Park Service.