Fishing: Decision on Little Juniata could take months
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In post-Revolutionary War Pennsylvania, the farmlands of the Little Juniata Valley became fertile ground for speculators, surveyors and merchant capitalists eager to make a buck on the frontier.
Iron forges and foundries, logging and limestone operations, grist mills and dozens of distilleries sprang up along the Little Juniata and other of the region's rivers, which became as important as roads for transporting goods until the railroad arrived around 1850.
So testified a historian Monday, on the opening day of the trial of the Commonwealth vs. Don Beaver and the Spring Ridge Club. The trial concluded Friday, but it could be months before Huntingdon County Common Pleas Court judge Stewart Kurtz renders a decision.
Historian Nancy Heberling of Heberling Associates spent hours on the stand as an expert witness for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and other plaintiffs in the case.
"People had two ways to travel -- by land and by water," Heberling said. "The roads were terrible ... muddy, rutted and narrow. Water transportation was always cheaper ... and more conducive to moving bulky items."
DEP and the other plaintiffs -- the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and tackle shop owner Allan Bright -- are relying on Heberling's account of the industrialization of central Pennsylvania to convince Kurtz of the Little Juniata's navigability.
There were as many attorneys as observers in the courtroom, given the number of state agencies that brought suit in the case, although a handful of fly fishermen and local farmers observed the proceedings.
"Not everyone has a silver spoon," said Bob Kreider of Palmyra, and president of the Susquehanna Fly Fishing Club, as he waited for the trial to begin. "Most of the clients of the fishing club are wealthy people ... who can pay $395 a day to fish. That's a lot of money in my book.
"On the other side of the ledger, people have a right to make a profit. I'm just here to see if there's a happy medium."
The same sentiment was expressed by the plaintiff's first witness, DEP secretary of water management Cathy Curran Myers, who spent Monday morning on the stand.
"We are not looking to put Don Beaver out of business," she said, after testifying that the Little Juniata is on multiple public highways declarations lists. "Maybe we can come to some kind of arrangement."
The contentiousness that has existed on the Little Juniata for the past 14 years makes a middle ground hard to fathom. Apart from that, Stan Stein, the attorney for trout guide Allan Bright, the lone individual plaintiff, said, "There's no way the state could agree to anything that would give away to private interest something in the public trust, so I don't believe there is a compromise."
While the state is seeking to have Kurtz rule that the Little Juniata is navigable, it also is asking the court to issue an injunction against Beaver and his club to stop advertising the 1.3 mile stretch near Spruce Creek as private fishing water and ordering anglers who wade down from public access to leave.
Beaver and his club insist that the Little Juniata was not the public highway the state claims and presented hydrogeology experts and Nancy Shedd, former president and executive director of the Huntingdon County Historical Society, to paint a different picture of a river as not broadly used for commerce. Going into the trial, defense attorney Charles Bierbach minimized the significance of declarations issued by the state legislature in the 1700s and 1800s. He said they were commonly granted at the request of private citizens seeking money to build bridges and make other improvements.
Bierbach would not comment during the trial, and Beaver's only comment Monday was, "I'm going to let the legal process take its course."
Bright, the only plaintiff seeking damages in the case, will not make a claim until the judge's ruling, and only if the decision is in the state's favor, said Stein.
Though Beaver has operated the club for just less than five years, Bright said his predecessors, Angling Fantasies, and Herman Espy, who originally controlled the property in dispute, set into motion the chain of events leading to last week's trial. Espy's widow Connie Espy and Angling Fantasies are also named as defendants in the suit.
"This has gone on for so long, there's a misconception with the public that the river is closed," Bright said. "We hear from people who have stayed away for years because they thought it was closed, although I know people who make a point of fishing it. Their attitude is, they have the right to be there and they're going to be there."
Each side has indicated it would appeal an unfavorable decision.
First Published June 18, 2006 12:00 am