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FOREST SERVICE GIVES BOOT TO HOPSCOTCHING SQUATTERS

The Ocala National Forest has evicted about 500 who lived with few rules and no rent.

Home for Thomas "Hippie" Klinger used to be wherever he anchored his pea-green bus.

The 57-year-old, Vietnam-era Army veteran hunkered down in the Ocala National Forest for months at a time, often among a grungy group of other free spirits and ne'er-do-wells whose perpetual presence prompted the U.S. Forest Service last year to sharply prune its length-of-stay rules in the federally managed wilderness.

"They wanted every one of us out," said Klinger, who prefers to be addressed by his nickname.

Ranger Rick Lint said the decrees, part of a policy overhaul aimed at improving the forest's image, flushed out many squatters and infuriated others, who were accustomed to a woodsy life with few rules and no rent. Forest officials estimate the number of squatters has fallen from 600 a year ago to fewer than 100 now, and those still residing there have moved deeper into the woods.

Under old rules, a visitor could stay in the forest indefinitely by hopscotching from campsite to campsite every two weeks. The new rules say visitors must leave after 14 days. Violators risk fines and permanent bans from all federal lands.

Klinger was among those pushed out of the Ocala Forest by the new rules. Although he denies it, he also is counted among those furious about the changes, according to federal authorities who charged him with threatening to murder Forest Service Officer Chris Crain, who carried out the new rules.

Klinger and co-defendant William Seagraves, 59, were acquitted recently of the charges that could have put both in federal prison for 10 years. Jurors said they sided with defense lawyers who suggested the two were harmless, frustrated men, whose overblown words about killing the burly Crain were just campfire braggadocio.

The 5-foot-5, 140-pound Seagraves, for instance, had vowed to "feed (Crain) to the gators."

Seagraves' lawyer David Mengers told jurors, "Sittin' in the woods runnin' your mouth is not a crime."

But the three-day trial in federal court illustrated the Forest Service's change in attitude in the Ocala forest, said jurors Dennis Bryant, 60, of Paisley, and Dale Stilts, 62, of Hernando.

"I think they were trying to send a message: If you don't respect the rules, there are going to be consequences," Stilts said.

Klinger's lawyer, federal public defender Rick Carey, suggested the criminal charges were an effort to oust the unwashed from public lands coveted by increasing swarms of bikers, birders, hikers and trail riders.

"This is eviction by conviction," he said in remarks to the jury.

Federal prosecutors obtained a pretrial order that banned both defendants from the forest while the case was pending.

The crackdown emptied many of the canvas and nylon shantytowns that littered the forest's campgrounds in Lake County. Two dozen inhabitants landed in Tavares, where they had often trekked to find temporary work, said police Officer Jody Maltzman, who helped connect many of them with services and shelters.

Advocates for the homeless decry the Forest Service's new rules, saying the government didn't solve a problem - it just hid it better. "We have a tendency to enact rules that get rid of the visible homeless," said Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Coalition for the Homeless. "It's just pushing the problem somewhere else."

Government officials discount the impact on the homeless, saying the real issue in the forest was lawlessness. Lint said the national forest has become a friendlier place to visit.

But not everybody agrees. Though his pretrial banishment was dissolved by the jury verdict, Klinger said he won't return to the Ocala National Forest. His home now is a tent tucked between a row of slash pines in Tavares. "I'm not going where I'm not wanted," he said.

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