In North Carolina, it’s illegal to teach living off the land

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Sean Higgins

The Wall Street Journal has a classic tale bureaucratic knuckle-headedness in its Thursday edition, as it recounts the ordeal of Eustace Conway, a man who runs a commune that teaches people how to live off the land without the benefit of modern conveniences. State regulators are now telling him he can only do this if he uses modern conveniences at his commune. Otherwise, it won’t be up to code:

Mr. Conway, 51 years old, is best known as “The Last American Man,” the title character of a 2002 biography and National Book Award finalist by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of “Eat, Pray, Love.” He has lived in the wilderness since the early 1980s.

He traps, shoots and grows much of his own food, makes pants out of buckskin and stitches his own wounds. He bathes in the cold creek that rolls through his 1,000-acre Turtle Island preserve in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. And he teaches others how to live off the land.

But now, Mr. Conway is devoting most of his time to the type of meetings, red tape and compromises he went to the woods to avoid.

Last fall, a team of health, construction and fire officials showed up for an unannounced inspection of the preserve, acting on an anonymous tip. Escorted by two sheriffs’ deputies, they executed what Mr. Conway describes as a “SWAT-team raid”—peering into outhouses, stomping around log cabins, and climbing hand-hewn ladders.

Their findings are compiled in a 78-page report with a bullet-point list of violations. Mr. Conway’s sawdust urinal and outhouses? Unpermitted, according to the officials. The wood he used to erect two dozen buildings? Built with lumber that isn’t “grade-marked,” meaning it doesn’t specify the mill where it was produced.

The open-air kitchen, with its crates of potatoes and stacks of pots? “Not protected from insects and animals,” according to the report. “It is, in fact, outdoors.”

The health department has shut down Turtle Island (which isn’t an actual island) to outsiders who flock to Mr. Conway for lessons on how to rough it. He says on his website he teaches people how to “break rocks to make stone tools, bend bark to fashion baskets, and spin sticks to create fire,” as well as “wash the dust off by standing in the rain, watching the deer come closer, listening to the wren’s call.”

Visitors include scouts, school groups and interns who stay for 14 months. Costs range from $65 for a two-hour, horse-drawn carriage tour with Mr. Conway to $1,400 for a two-week camp for teens. Turtle Island operates as a not-for-profit educational organization. Mr. Conway has run programs there for more than 20 years.

The county says Mr. Conway must rebuild or tear down his cabins, barn, kitchen, blacksmith shop and sawmill, and create a septic system before hosting any more classes and camps.

“These buildings aren’t fit for public use,” says Joseph A. Furman, county planning director.

Mr. Conway says primitive facilities are precisely the point.

“Modern inspectors know how to measure a board, but not how to build a building,” he says as he tours one of the structures deemed fit for condemnation. The lumber’s not stamped with a grade because he produced it himself at his own sawmill, from trees felled nearby, he says.

He likens his construction techniques—such as interlocking corner notches and cantilevered roofs—to those of frontiersman Daniel Boone, namesake of the county seat.

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