One Man's Treasure 

Metal detectors unearth relics that some say should stay buried

The gold nugget hanging from a chain around Gerry McMullen's neck is worth almost $1,000. He found it 15 years ago and since then, has unearthed gold nuggets worth 25 times more. But for McMullen, the nugget around his neck represents a passion for metal detecting that began in 1974, when he was 7 years old and growing up in Boise's North End. With his metal detector, he was able to find enough silver coins--and flip them at a jewelry shop--to afford admission to the Meridian Speedway, hot dogs and soda.

"This money-finding detector was my dream ticket," McMullen said.

He couldn't have guessed at the time that he would someday make a living off metal detectors. Twenty years ago, McMullen and his wife were laid off from Micron on the same day. As she sat beside him, crying, he told her, "I'm going to take this hobby and make it into a full-time business."

That was the beginning of Gerry's Metal Detectors, a business McMullen runs out of the basement of his North End home. He sells about 300 metal detectors a year worldwide--they can cost as much as $5,000 each--and offers training to his customers, taking them to the Nevada desert, Arizona, the Bahamas, Alaska, Hawaii, Mexico, Lake Tahoe, Australia, England and the East Coast. The walls of McMullen's basement business are lined with hundreds of different detectors and the shelves are filled with bottles, small toys, hinges, locks, glass cases of coins, bike licenses and dog tags from 1896, 1909 and 1918.

McMullen is careful to go by the books. Every year, he gets a permit from the city to metal detect in parks. Whenever he finds something overseas, he goes through export laws and works with archeologists to get those items catalogued and even displayed in museums.

But many metal detector enthusiasts aren't so careful. Two laws, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and the 43 CFD 8365, state that any archeological or historic item on public lands needs to stay there. In Idaho, that covers a lot of territory: a combined 65 percent of the Gem State is owned by the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the Idaho Land Trust.

"Items that are out there on public lands, they're part of our history," said F. Kirk Halford, deputy preservation officer and state archaeologist for Idaho's BLM office. "People should think of it like an outdoor museum. You see it, touch it, take pictures, take notes, then leave it behind. When you go into a museum, you don't take stuff away."

Those rules have proved a challenge for what is a growing hobby in the Treasure Valley. The Boise Basin Search and Recovery Club boasts about 50 members who get together at Idaho Pizza Company every month to show off their latest finds. They also hold a biannual planted hunt. Their most recent hunt took place last month on a ranch outside of New Plymouth, where 2,000 modern coins were spread out across an acre. Members combed the field, large headphones covering their ears, their detectors ranging the ground. For every coin, a chorus of beeps filled the air. One member of the club, who didn't want to be named, said he is fed up with the federal laws.

"I've heard of people on government land getting their metal detectors confiscated," he said. "I'm getting paranoid about going places. I go to old homestead sites, some that aren't even on a map. This stuff is going to be in the ground forever and eventually just decay away to nothing."

Other metal detector advocates, like the author of metal-detecting-ghost-towns-of-the-east.com, echo concerns that enthusiasts are unfairly prohibited from pursuing their hobby.

"As you read this page, you will begin to understand that those laws are a hindrance to our right of enjoying our public lands," the website states, going on to relay horror stories of small children getting arrowheads ripped from their hands by archeologists whose goal is "to control every item of history."

This is an issue that has Halford scratching his head. It's hard to catch people in the act, which can lead to a $100,000 fine and five years in jail. But he's happier leaving metal detector hobbyists with a warning and some education on the issue. Halford also wants to encourage them to work with the BLM and archaeologists to help develop research opportunities.

The president of the Society for American Archaeology, Jeff Altschul, feels the same frustration.

"The artifacts should be owned by the public and not privately," Altschul said. "It's important that those items sit in the dirt. Once it gets out of the dirt, if it's not recovered adequately, it's just a thing on the shelf. It has no importance to history. You've lost the entire story of what that piece meant, and you lose all ability to reconstruct the past, the settlement of the West and how people lived.

"These are generally not the people in history books; they're not wealthy," he added. "The only thing that remains is the archaeological record. If you take that out, the story is gone. All it does is sit on your shelf."

Halford said the issue erupted with reality TV shows like National Geographic Channel's Diggers.

"It promotes people treasure hunting and unfortunately they don't give the proper message," Halford said. "It teaches folks that it's OK to go out and find this stuff and sell it. It's teaching people to go out and steal from the public."

For McMullen, detecting is only half the hunt. Once he finds an item, "it's a whole new treasure hunt, trying to find the history of the items," he said. "So you're on the Internet, doing Google searches, finding forums, talking to people. Eventually someone will know what it is. Then sometimes you'll see a picture of somebody in the old days wearing that exact item."

McMullen returns rings he finds along beaches on almost every trip he takes. A family recently called and asked him to find an engagement ring that a young woman threw out the car window during a fight with her fiance. He said he loves seeing the reaction people have when they think they'll never see something again.

"It's a community service that we do," he said.

As far as the gold nugget around McMullen's neck, he said if he does ever lose it, "Part of me hopes [the person who finds it] would try to track me down. And the other part of me says, 'Enjoy it. Have fun with it.' But I don't want to see it just sit in the ground because then no one gets to enjoy it."

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