Camper or squatter? Extended-stay visitors in national forests raise concerns

Michael Legg has been camping for months in the Francis Marion National Forest. He says he has been traveling the country for five years and enjoys being out in nature. Some say such long-term campers are homeless squatters.

HUGER — A gray fox scampered across the dirt road in front of Michael Legg as he walked his dogs the other day. Thousands of birds were in the pines lately, but they’re now gone. He does see mice.

What you don’t see is another soul, not anywhere around the pull-off in the Francis Marion National Forest where Legg, 59, has been with his dogs, camping trailer, truck and sports car for so long he’s not really sure what month he arrived. He’s just camping, he says.

Others say he’s squatting.

To some, long-staying “campers” such as Legg are the forest version of the urban homeless. Regular forest users worry that if the practice is not better controlled it could create eyesore “camp” cities there, much like the so-called Tent City that Charleston is dealing under Interstate 26 near Huger Street.

The extended-stay campers recurrently turn up in campgrounds or simply open spots by forest roads, living essentially off the road. Often they’re in travel trailers, occasionally just in tents. A lot of them are retirees, a harder-core style of the RVer who moves campground to campground. They are trying to live the retire-out-in-the-woods dream.

It’s a not-so-widely realized aspect of national forests that open camping is permitted, unless it’s been prohibited in a specific area. The governing regulation in the Francis Marion is that after 14 days, the camper must leave the site for a minimum of four days.

Legg, like others, simply moves down the road a ways then returns. In the Francis Marion so far, it’s an occasional vexation and not the recurrent headache of more sought-after forest environs.

But it’s enough of a thorn in the side that forest managers are looking at revising the 14-day regulation. “We have a few campers that tend to take advantage of the current regulations. The biggest problem is resource damage,” said District Ranger Rhea Whalen.

Resource damage is disruption to or wear on a forest site that means the environs must be restored. For the U.S. Forest Service that includes impacts such as loss of habitat or timber value.

S.C. Department of Natural Resources Capt. Robert McCullough said it’s not so much a problem on state lands, where open camping generally is not permitted, but does happen. With more than 1 million acres under the department’s purview, if someone decides to stay put in an obscure nook of, say, the Jocassee Gorge, wildlife officers might not know about it right away, he said.

At least some regulars who roam the backwoods of the Francis Marion don’t like it. “If they’re allowed to stay, everybody else will start doing it, and then you have trash” and other crowding problems, said hunter Carl Morris Jr. of Huger.

Legg is laid back and genial on a recent afternoon.

He walks stiffly in obvious pain. His right arm is wracked enough that he prefers to shake with his left hand. He retired on disability after an automobile wreck, he said. He is an Army 82nd Airborne veteran, he said, a former construction worker and house painter from northern Michigan. He grew up in the woods, simply prefers to live outside, he said.

After rehabilitation from the wreck, he hit the road, out West at first, he said, then back to the Midwest and now East. “Soon as the weather gets a little warmer I might be moving north. But you never know, I might stay. This place is beautiful,” he said.

A box of Truly Radiant toothpaste sits on the dashboard of his truck with a toothbrush. Both the older Ford truck that’s painted in a camouflage pattern and the sleek newer sports car have Oregon license plates. Legg wears a cap with the name and fiery logo of a Coos Bay salvage company. He was there for a few years, he said.

“I just wanted to wander. This will be year number five,” he said. “Never have not loved the outdoors. I guess I just have a love for the lifestyle and a love for the Earth.”

He camps in the compact older travel trailer with three hunting dog mixes and a pup. There is no scattered trash. On Monday, two large black-and-yellow butterflies flittered about. The trailer is not heated and the cold weeks earlier this month were tough, Legg said.

He built fires in a clearing across the road for what warmth he could get and just toughed it out inside the trailer. He doesn’t hunt. He gets out to walk the dogs or gingerly pedal his mountain bike. The crouched-over posture is tough on the back, he said. “I’m just trying to stay healthy and alive.”

The other day, a woman asked him if he wouldn’t rather be in an apartment someplace and he concedes that sooner or later that’s where he’ll end up. He’s just not ready yet. “If you can find the time to do all these things you’ve been putting off in your life,” he said, “maybe you’ve done something.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 843-937-5744.