Why we sued the DCNR |

Why we sued the DCNR

Every summer since 1969, “Summer’s Best Two Weeks,” a nonprofit summer camp about an hour southeast of Pittsburgh, helped its campers safely navigate the whitewater rapids of the Lower Youghiogheny River.

But a couple of years ago, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources told the camp it no longer was welcome to raft on the same terms as everyone else, leaving its campers up the creek without a paddle.

For the most part, the department has done a fine job adopting policies that allow anyone to freely enjoy the beauty and adventure of the Lower Yough’s whitewater. As long as private boaters have safe equipment, the department allows anyone — including church groups, outdoor enthusiasts, scouting troops, families or even just groups of friends — to launch from the public access area onto the river in groups of up to 60.

Since Ohiopyle State Park started managing the Lower Yough, “Summer’s Best Two Weeks” enjoyed these open-access policies to provide a rite of passage in which campers would put into practice the lessons they learned about self-confidence and teamwork.

The camp steadfastly adhered to safety practices and made a point of using the river at the least popular times so that they would neither be crowded nor inconvenience other boaters. Thanks to these precautions, “Summer’s Best Two Weeks” never had a single accident requiring medical attention in all its 30 years on the Yough.

In 2001, however, the DCNR decided to disregard both its commonsense rules for accessing the Lower Yough and the explicit, written permission it had previously given for “Summer’s Best Two Weeks” to use the river according to the same rules applicable to all other private boaters.

Instead, the department gave the camp’s leadership an ultimatum: Either pay upward of $30,000 each year to one of Ohiopyle’s commercial outfitters to guide your trips or stay off the river entirely. Keep in mind, beyond the financial expense, at least four rafters under the supervision of the commercial outfitters have died in the past 10 years.

The camp explained to the DCNR that it should not have to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a commercial outfitter with a spotty safety record to guide trips that the camp has safely handled by itself for more than 30 years.

Furthermore, “Summer’s Best Two Weeks” cherished its whitewater trips in large part because of the opportunity they provided for the campers to bond with counselors who model the camp’s values in a way that the outfitters’ paid guides likely will not.

And finally, “Summer’s Best Two Weeks” has noted how unfair it is that after being treated just like all other private boaters for so long, the department should suddenly decide that the camp should be treated differently.

Unfortunately, the DCNR has refused to budge from its new position and for the past four years has prevented “Summer’s Best Two Weeks” from providing its campers with their traditional rite of passage.

Left with no other alternative, the group called upon the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania to restore its rights. On Tuesday, the Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit on the camp’s behalf that seeks to vindicate the right of all Pennsylvanians to be free from arbitrary government denials of liberty.

As recently as 2003, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has affirmed that denials of liberty must have a real and substantial relationship to a legitimate government purpose if they are to be acceptable under the Pennsylvania Constitution.

The Commonwealth Court should recognize that no legitimate government purpose is served by the DCNR’s decision to treat this safe, peaceful summer camp differently than all other private boaters by forcing it to pay commercial outfitters for trips it had previously, happily and safely handled on its own.

Dave Roland is an attorney for the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va. ( ).

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.