Conway Meets the Modern Way: Woodsman Slapped With Code Violations

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A cabin in the woods by a gravel road.

Elmar Langle / Getty Images

How to make a Eustace Conway:

Mix together equal parts legendary woodcrafting pathfinder Daniel Boone with media-savvy survivalist Bear Grylls and add a dash of mountain-dwelling hirsute folk hero James “Grizzly” Adams before bringing a boil over an open fire. Serve over a bed of Henry David Thoreau with frontier fashion icon Davy Crockett as an optional garnish. For added flavor, lightly sprinkle with Ted Nugent; more sensitive palates may prefer seasoning with Ernest Thompson Seton. The resulting dish should taste nothing less than gamey.

As resident hair farmer and proprietor of outdoor education/retreat center Turtle Island — not an actual island but a 1,000-acre wildlife preserve in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains — Eustace Conway, 51, can be described as an unholy mix of the above men, his game-hunting, firewood-harvesting, electricity-eschewing, buckskin pant-wearing essence captured in “Eat, Pray, Love” author Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2002 biography “The Last American Man.” More recently, Conway made the leap from TEDx-dom to reality television in the History Channel reality series “Mountain Men.”

Conway, a third-generation educator whose formal training in self-reliance includes moving into a teepee at the age of 17, canoeing 1,000 miles along the Mississippi at 18, hiking the Appalachian Trail in its entirety, and riding coast to coast on horseback in 103 days, has devoted much of his adult life to instructing others in the fine art of roughing it. He also holds degrees in English and anthropology from Appalachian State University.

Recently, however, Conway has devoted much of his time not to spoon making and foraging, but to dealing with the decidedly un-Thoreauvian bureaucratic reality of building code violations. And according to the Wall Street Journal, the noted naturalist is up to his braids in them.

Last fall, Turtle Island Preserve was subject to what Conway describes as an unexpected “SWAT-team raid” in which a team of nearly a dozen sheriff-escorted Watauga County code officials descended on his land equipped with "topographic maps, aerial photographs, GPS equipment to discern coordinates, laptops, pages of highlighted photographs of unknown origins, and even a county 4-wheeler to more easily get around the property." Following the day-and-a-half long investigation, a firm retained by the county published a 78-page report detailing various building, health, and fire violations found at Turtle Island.

Operated as a nonprofit educational organization, Turtle Island Preserve has hosted scouts, school groups and countless curious city-slickers for more than 25 years without a single health-related incident. None of the buildings — deemed by the county as not structurally sound — have proven to be hazardous. Yet the preserve has been shut down indefinitely and Conway ordered to either demolish or rebuild and modernize the compound's cabins, outhouses, barn, blacksmith shop and other structures. Conway must also install a septic system and other 21st-century trappings such as smoke detectors and fire sprinklers.

“Codes don’t apply to what we’re doing,” Conway tells the Journal, noting that most visitors to Turtle Island spend the bulk of their time outdoors. “Modern inspectors know how to measure a board, but not how to build a building.”

Watauga County Commissioner Perry Yates explains his wishes moving forward: "There needs to be give and take on both sides. We need to respect our ancestors' way of life, but we also need to do it in a sanitary manner." Singling out the use of an oven range being used in the outdoor kitchen, Yates also points out that Conway’s emphasis on the primitive isn’t entirely the problem — it's the intermingling of the primitive and the modern: “If we are going to teach 1776, let's teach it the way it really was.”

Not too long after the violations were issued, Conway was arrested for second-degree trespassing on a neighbor's property.

The building code battle at Turtle Island has attracted a legion of supporters who firmly stand behind Conway and his frozen-in-time vision. Not surprisingly, libertarian groups are up in arms. Don Carrington of Raleigh-based think tank the John Locke Foundation tells the Journal: "Why can't you do what you want on your own land? Shouldn't you be able to have guests come in, and say here's where you go to the bathroom, here's where you eat, and if you don't want to do that, don't come?"

A petition requesting that the North Carolina Building Codes Council alter state code to exempt the structures at Turtle Island has garnered more than 13,000 signatures.

Reads the Turtle Island Preserve-launched petition:

Those of you who have visited Turtle Island Preserve know that our structures are unique in that they are built with materials harvested here on the farm and adhere to natural and historical methods. Our buildings are unquestionably structurally sound, but do not fit the wording or application of modern building codes, as the methods used to build them predate the conception of modern building codes. The veteran, licensed engineer we hired to assess the structural concerns expressed by the county stated that our buildings are 'Better than code.' If modern, cookie-cutter buildings fit our purposes or needs, we would have built them. But they certainly do not.
To comply with current, modern building codes and regulations, with no variance or allowance for natural, traditional, historical, cultural or educational models, is at the very least a compromise to our integrity, our mission, and our value to the community and the world. If we were forced to function like every other public facility, the values, ethics, and practical knowledge we teach would be lost. Trying to force a modern framework around a facility that is specifically designed to be primitive does not make sense. The methods we teach go back tens of thousands of years. The modern building codes go back only 40-50 years.

Buildings methods aside, I do find the timing rather peculiar. Why now after decades of flawless annual health inspections and what appeared to be a harmonious relationship between Conway and the county?
The county claims that it received an anonymous complaint of an unpermitted building at Turtle Island from a local resident, denying that an initial inspection performed prior to the "raid" was prompted by anything seen on the show "Mountain Men."

Conway claims otherwise, however, telling the Watauga Democrat that Planning and Inspections Director Joe Furman had indeed mentioned the show to him and the "unacceptable things" that he had seen on it during a phone conversation prior to the inspection. I should also mention that a major housing development is in the works near Turtle Island and Conway, well, he's sitting on top of some pretty valuable land.

It would be a shame — a highly ironic one at that — if Conway's participation in, off all things, a reality television show, was the impetus for the random code crack-down.

"I believe our founding fathers would do anything to come back and get in on this one," Conway says of the fracas.

It’s worth taking a look around the Turtle Island Preserve website to learn more about the organization and the various “experiential” back-to-basics activities available to visitors such as “harnessing a mule or pounding metal at the blacksmith shop or killing a rooster for supper.” I’ve also read some remarks here and there from folks who claim that for a self-styled self-sufficiency guru, Conway doesn’t exactly practice what he preaches (allegedly, he’s big on power tools and the preserve is more of an automotive junkyard than a functioning farmstead). I have not visited Turtle Island so I can't comment on that matter.

Any past Turtle Island Preserve visitors/campers or neighbors care to chime in?

Via [WSJ]