Christian camp sues state over restrictions on raft trips

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HARRISBURG -- For 32 years, counselors from Summer's Best Two Weeks led teenagers on a 7.5-mile whitewater expedition on the lower Youghiogheny River, which runs through Ohiopyle State Park.

Five years ago, though, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said the trips couldn't continue unless the nonprofit Christian camp hired private river guides at a cost of $30,000 per summer. Meanwhile, the department allows others, including inexperienced rafters, on the river without guides.

Now the Boswell-based camp is suing for river access.

"This is an opportunity to restore an important tradition our leaders and campers have shared since 1969," camp founder Jim Welch said yesterday after filing suit in Commonwealth Court. "We hope the court will say, once and for all, that we should have the same opportunity to experience the lower Yough that the park already affords to everyone else."

The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources requires all commercial rafting groups to use licensed outfitters, said Terry Brady, the department's deputy press secretary. Summer's Best Two Weeks is considered a commercial group, he said, because it charges tuition.

"The department has always maintained that this is a commercial activity and [the camp] had been actively rafting without authorization," Mr. Brady said.

Camp director Kent Biery said Summer's Best Two Weeks applied for and received permits for every rafting trip.

He and the camp's attorneys from the Justice Institute in Washington, D.C., say the department's rules are arbitrary and that they unnecessarily restrict access to natural resources.

Mr. Brady said the department encourages all rafters to hire licensed outfitters but requires them only for commercial groups.

The state has authorized four commercial outfitters to guide whitewater trips on the lower Youghiogheny and has an arrangement to receive 7.5 percent of the outfitters' adjusted gross receipts.

"Rafting is dangerous. It's very trying and it's thrilling. We always stress safety," he said.

Safety isn't an issue, Mr. Welch said.

"We think we run a safer program than the commercial guides do because we put a guide in every single boat," Mr. Welch said at a news conference yesterday outside the Capitol. No camper has ever had a rafting injury more serious than a scrape or bruise, he said.

Trips are led by camp counselors, mostly college students who receive $250 a week plus room and board.

The trips were conducted safely and were a highlight of the summer, said Phoebe Monteleone of Fox Chapel, who was a camper for nine years and now is a counselor.

"I remember those trips more vividly than anything else I've ever done. It's a shame that campers now are getting cheated out of it," Miss Monteleone said yesterday from the University of Wisconsin, where she is a junior.

"Most of the kids, if they're not going rafting with Summer's Best, probably aren't ever going to get to go rafting."

Dave Roland, the camp's lead attorney, said the department's requirement has no legitimate purpose and suggested it is aimed at "protecting the profits of businesses that are part of a government-created cartel."

The camp funds its $1.2 million operating budget through tuition of $570 per camper. Capital purchases are made exclusively with donated funds.

Each summer, the camp serves 3,000 children ages 12 to 18 in five sessions lasting two weeks each. Only those over 12 participate in the rafting trips.


Tracie Mauriello can be reached at tmauriello@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141.


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