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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. ( www.ij.org ).


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