ALBUQUERQUE — A collection of gold and jewels that a retired Santa Fe art dealer says he stashed in the mountains north of Santa Fe has generated so much interest from amateur treasure hunters that some have put their lives in jeopardy or been cited for illegally digging on public lands.
But authorities are warning people about more than being careful and following the law. They also note finders may not be keepers.
“If this treasure is buried, you would need to dig for it. And you can’t dig anywhere in a national forest without a permit,” said Bruce Hill, spokesman for the Santa Fe National Forest. “Even if it is not buried and it is just placed somewhere it becomes public domain.”
Ditto for state lands, according to Department of Game and Fish spokesman Dan Williams.
Fenn was asked if he had considered land rights before hiding the chest. He said in an email that much has been written about land laws.
“I’m staying out of those discussions, except to say it may be fun to redefine some of the terms,” Fenn said in the email.
The poem that Fenn published in his memoir, “The Thrill of the Chase,” to give clues to the chest’s whereabouts advises the treasure finder to “Look quickly down, your quest to cease, But tarry scant with marvel gaze, Just take the chest and go in peace.”
But authorities currently seem to be more concerned about public safety than ownership questions as publicity about Fenn’s claims to have hidden the 40-plus pound chest filled with gold coins, gold nuggets and ancient jewelry draws people to the northern New Mexico mountains.
Last month, a woman from Texas got lost in the mountains near Los Alamos overnight after seeing reports about the treasure on national television. But she was found safe the next day.
And Williams said the state plans to file charges against a man found digging last month under a descanso along the upper Pecos River last month. A descanso is a marker where someone has died or ashes scattered. Williams says the man told officers he was digging for Fenn’s treasure.
Forest officials are urging treasure hunters to check with their office before setting out to make sure they have the proper gear and know the best places to go, Hill said.
“One of the concerns that we had is that this might invite people that really aren’t familiar with traveling in a forest,” Hill said. “They could get lost. They could step and stumble and turn an ankle … maybe put themselves in a situation where they have to be rescued and maybe put other people’s lives at risk.”
Fenn said he has also posted caution notices on his web site and several blogs.
“Flatlanders don’t realize how dangerous it can be,” he said.