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A Somerset program sues after Pa. bans it from the Youghiogheny River

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Sunday, May 27, 2007
 

Summer's Best Two Weeks, a Christian summer camp in Somerset County, will open next month for its 42nd season. But the rafts will stay in storage because Steltzer has been barred from leading campers on rafting trips since 2001, when the state revoked its permission.

The annual trips were a rite of passage for campers, he said.

"It's been disappointing not to give kids the experience we've been giving them for years," Steltzer said. "It's a trip they look forward to. They'd say, 'Man, I can't wait until I go rafting.' For many of them, it would be their first experience at rafting."

They'll have to stay off the river until a lawsuit is resolved.

Without notice, the state revoked its long-standing permission for the camp to guide its own trips down the Yough, which it had done since 1969. If the camp wanted to continue the trips, it would have to hire one of four state-licensed outfitters.

So the nondenominational camp, with the help of attorneys from a public-interest law firm, sued the state, asking Commonwealth Court to declare unconstitutional the law that governs access to the rapids at Ohiopyle State Park. A decision is expected later this year.

The state agrees with the four licensed outfitters at Ohiopyle State Park, who claim the camp is a commercial operation that cuts into their dwindling profits.

The program's directors say the nondenominational Christian camp is a nonprofit that can't afford to pay rafting companies to guide tours. Because any rafter is allowed on the river without hiring one of the outfitters as a guide, lawyers argue that the summer camp should have the same access rights.

In the balance is the question of who has the right to use the river.

Fight for river access

About 3,000 campers, ages 8-18, pay $570 each to attend the 140-acre summer camp at Lake Gloria for two weeks. They swim, play sports, rock climb and study the Bible. The camp was founded by Jim Welch, a Princeton-educated minister, who wanted a summer retreat for kids to learn Christian values in an outdoor setting.

The camp began rafting trips in 1969 but in 1984, the state withdrew its permission. Three years later, the state withdrew its objections, and Summer's Best Two Weeks resumed its rafting expeditions. That changed six years ago, when the camp received a letter from the state.

"It was out of the blue," said Steltzer. "At the time, it seemed to be random. There was no discussion beforehand. ...They just cut us off."

In 1978, the state commissioned a study that determined only four commercial outfitters could survive economically along the Yough River.

In 1985, the Legislature passed the Whitewater Act, which, camp lawyers argue, created a protected cartel for commercial outfitters and allowed the state to license only four companies to exclusively lead trips on the wild Lower Yough rapids.

The licensed companies pay the state a 7.5 percent commission on fees rafters pay for equipment and guides.

Attorney Jeff Rowes, of the Institute for Justice, said the state was arbitrary in its decision to license four outfitters.

"The government has decided the perfect number is four, and any deviation from the status quo" would financially hurt the rafting companies, he said.

But the state claims Summer's Best Two Weeks is a commercial outfitter because it owns its rafts and takes large groups down the Lower Yough. Deputy Attorney General Michael Harvey said the camp "threatens the viability of the four present outfitters and may result in having no outfitters available to lead group river trips."

Kent Biery, executive director of the camp, said it would cost $30,000 a year to pay outfitters for the rafting trips. The camp can't afford it, he says.

"We're a nonprofit, and we want to make it accessible to everybody and anybody," he said. "We feel like we do a pretty good job keeping our cost down."

Summer's Best Two Weeks is operated by Christian Camps of Pittsburgh. The complex comprises a series of cabins on 140 acres in Boswell, Somerset County, about an hour's drive from Ohiopyle. There is a dining hall, athletic fields, courts and a tall wooden tower where campers learn to rappel.

A special program brings campers from urban areas of Pennsylvania, Virginia, Connecticut, Ohio and New Jersey whose parents can't afford the tuition.

The camp finished the budget year in the black, with a $500,000 surplus, according to its tax-exempt filing with the IRS. Biery said the surplus is used to maintain the facility and cover insurance and new equipment.

Joel Means, owner of Ohiopyle Trading Post, said the surplus the camp generates proves "they're not a true nonprofit."

Ohipyle rafting numbers down

Means stood behind the counter at his business on what is supposed to be a busy Friday on a Memorial Day weekend. But he said reservations are down and he expects most of his customers will be walk-ins who will pay from $42 to $89 to challenge the river.

Ohiopyle outfitters say they have a window of 15 weeks to make a profit from about 90,000 rafters a year, and it's getting harder.

Means said the popularity of whitewater rafting has been declining since the peak years in the 1980s. The outfitters face stiff competition from West Virginia, which gives outfitters matching funds for marketing, he said. And rafters are trying the more challenging New and Gauley rivers in southern West Virginia, where outfitters guide about 300,000 rafters a year.

"When I started a business here renting rafts in 1980, each of the outfitters were handling 15,000," Means said. "I'm running 5,000. The big outfitters are running about 12,000.

"Summer's Best Two Weeks is conducting commercial activity," he said. "They're selling raft trips. They're conducting commerce here. They just don't want to pay anybody."

Rowes said it was the outfitters who pressured the state to bar the camp from rafting, according to depositions he's taken of state officials.

"One hundred percent of the pressure came from the outfitters," Rowe said. "It's driven entirely by the outfitters."

Means denies he and his colleagues pressured the state. He said the issue is a matter of simple economics.

"On certain days, I need 25 guides. On other days, I don't need any," he said.

Camp claims good safety record

In addition to paying a commission, the companies are subject to safety inspections and equipment requirements, Harvey said. They also must agree to absolve the state of liability in case of an accident.

Rowes said the camp is willing to comply with any state rules and meet the same safety standards as outfitters.

"We'll sign anything to get on the river. We'll bend over backwards to do it," he said. "What the outfitters are afraid of, if the state park lets Summer's Best Two Weeks raft the river, then other nonprofits will demand the right to raft on their own. "

Biery defends the camp's safety record on the river, where one of the most popular sections is a challenging 7-mile stretch from Ohiopyle to Brunner Run. Over the past 30 years, there have been 21 deaths, about half of them linked to the dangerous Dimple Rock Rapids. In that same time span, Biery said, his group never has had a fatal accident.

Safety issues aside, the key issue for the courts to determine is whether the camp should be considered a commercial enterprise.

"To allow Summer's Best Two Weeks to operate their own guided trips down the lower Youghiogheny River is detrimental to the public interest," Harvey argued in the lawsuit.

"Summer's Best Two Weeks cannot be considered a private boater. Rather, it is providing a whitewater boating service for its campers without the approved license. It regularly takes large groups on guided trips down the Youghiogheny River. It uses paid guides to lead the trips. Its campers pay a fee to enroll in the camp and participate in its activities, including rafting.

"The camp holds itself out to the public as a whitewater boating service and advertises its whitewater trip as one of the activities to be enjoyed by campers."

 

 
 


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