By KIRK SWAUGER
BOSWELL — For decades, whitewater excursions at Ohiopyle were a rite of passage for campers at Summer’s Best Two Weeks in Jenner Township.
That all suddenly changed five years ago, when state officials began refusing the Somerset County Christian camp access to the river without a commercial guide.
Now, Summer’s Best is fighting back.
The camp filed a lawsuit Tuesday in Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg, contending the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is violating the state Constitution by denying its right to use public rafting launches on the Lower Youghiogheny River.
It is seeking a permanent injunction to overturn that policy.
“What’s amazing to us is we have this incredible resource in our own backyard and we’re not allowed to use it,” said Kent Biery, the camp’s executive director, from Harrisburg.
“We’re not looking for anything extraordinary.”
The suit, filed by the Institute for Justice in suburban Washington, names DCNR; Secretary Michael DiBerardinis; Roger Fickes, director of the Bureau of State Parks; and John Hallas, superintendent at Ohiopyle State Park.
“We haven’t seen the suit,” said DCNR spokesman Terry Brady. “Really, we don’t comment on pending litigation.”
Summer’s Best, a nonprofit camp headquartered at Lake Gloria near Boswell, safely conducted the whitewater trips down the Yough from 1969 to 2001.
In 1987, after years of tacit approval, DCNR issued written permission for the camp to use the public launches at Ohiopyle, the lawsuit said.
But in 2001, the agency reversed its position by requiring Summer’s Best to pay one of four licensed commercial outfitters at Ohiopyle to act as guides on the outings.
Camp executives maintain the outfitters operate a monopoly – an “exclusionary cartel” – at Ohiopyle.
“Government on every level imposes itself with greater frequency on even the most innocent areas of our lives,” the camp’s attorneys said in a statement. “In Pennsylvania, that now includes summer camp.”
Based on state figures, about half of the 46,358 boaters at Ohiopyle paid for commercial outfitters; about a quarter used their own rafts or kayaks, and the remainder rented equipment from the outfitters, the lawsuit said.
State officials have said the camp can use the river, but must pay a licensed guide. Under state law, the outfitters are the only businesses allowed to provide for-profit tours of the rapids.
The state contends that, since the camp’s counselors are paid for their work, they’re acting as for-profit guides at Ohiopyle as well.
The camp said it adheres to safety practices more extensive than the state requires of its outfitters. No campers have suffered serious injuries on any trip.
“In all its years of taking campers down the river, Summer’s Best Two Weeks never had an accident more significant than the scrapes, bumps and bruises common to any outdoor activity,” the suit said.
Biery described the excursions as a rite of passage and a chance to instill teamwork and self-confidence in the thousands of campers who annually attend Summer’s Best Two Weeks.
“It’s a very challenging, fulfilling, fun trip that requires a lot of discipline, a lot of team work,” he said. “We use that as an opportunity to build character.
“We don’t get the same experience going down with somebody else.”
Kirk Swauger can be reached at 445-5103 or email@example.com.