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Halting Fenn treasure hunt no guarantee of safety

So far, two people have died while searching for Forrest Fenn’s buried gold: Randy Bilyeu in 2016 and Parris Wallace this year. In response, State Police Chief Pete Kassetas has called for Fenn to end the treasure hunt. “Certainly, we want people to get outdoors and enjoy New Mexico,” Kassetas told the Santa Fe New Mexican, “but you have to do it safely.”

I agree with Chief Kassetas that outdoor adventures need to be safe ones. I disagree with his call to end the hunt. I say this knowing that if the hunt continues, other people may die.

Apparently, both Bilyeu and Wallace drowned in the Rio Grande. That’s part of a pattern: a study of 2003-07 deaths in U.S. National Parks showed that the leading cause of death was drowning. Of course, there are plenty of other ways to die in the outdoors. Recently, a Texas doctor and experienced hiker, Sarah Beadle, died of apparent heat exhaustion in the Grand Canyon. If the National Park Service banned hikes during the searing Grand Canyon summers, Dr. Beadle would be alive today – but I don’t recall anyone suggesting that those hikes should end.

In a country where individual freedom and the outdoors go hand in hand, we accept that the basic responsibility for safe adventures lies with the adventurers. We also accept that no matter how careful people are, tragedy cannot be eliminated entirely. Not at home, not at work, not in the wild.

The deaths of Randy Bilyeau and Parris Wallace are tragic – but thousands of people have been drawn outdoors by Fenn’s treasure without harm to themselves. Each year, many more people hike, climb, ride, hunt, bicycle, go four-wheeling, strap on cross-country skis, step into kayaks or rafts, or otherwise find ways to enjoy New Mexico’s stunning beauty, for any reason they choose. None of those activities is risk-free, but when they do lead to tragedy we don’t talk about outlawing deer hunts or kayaks. Instead, we call for programs to teach people how to minimize the risk and hope that people bother to learn.

If the Fenn treasure hunt comes to an end, those seeking adventure and not prepared to deal with it will make the same mistakes for different reasons. And a very few people who do everything right might die anyway, because death comes to us all. Pulling the treasure will not change anything but a detail. I hope that Fenn’s gold stays wherever it is and continues to draw people out of their ordinary lives. If they notice the beauty around them and realize that their life has become an adventure, they’ll have found the treasure Forrest Fenn sent them to find.

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