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Pennsylvania’s River of Red Tape: IJ Challenges a Rafting Cartel

For some bureaucrats, it is never too late to restrict liberty.

For more than three decades, Summer’s Best Two Weeks, a non-profit summer camp located about an hour southeast of Pittsburgh, rafted in Ohiopyle State Park just like any other private group—without needing any special permission from Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. But in 2001, at the behest of the government-imposed cartel of commercial rafting outfitters, the Department decided that the camp must stay off of the water—unless, of course, it pays the outfitters to lead its campers down the river.

The Lower Youghiogheny (“yaw-ki-GAY-nee”) River in southwestern Pennsylvania is the most popular stretch of white water east of the Mississippi River. Ever since the park was established, the Department has encouraged the public’s use and enjoyment of the river. As long as visitors have the proper equipment, the Department’s rules let anyone round up as many as 59 friends and use the public facilities at Ohiopyle State Park to ride the famous rapids.

Every summer for more than 30 years, Summer’s Best Two Weeks treated many of its campers to the thrill of white water rafting. The camp’s rafting trips are led by experienced counselors who are committed to both the physical and spiritual well-being of the campers under their supervision. Under the camp’s guidance, no camper has ever suffered a rafting injury more serious than the scrapes, bumps and bruises common to any outdoor activity. These challenging and uplifting trips serve as a rite of passage for the campers at Summer’s Best Two Weeks and are frequently described as the most memorable, meaningful element of the camp’s two-week program.

But instead of seeing happy campers, Ohiopyle’s four state-licensed commercial outfitters only saw money floating down the river. As a result, they pressured the Department to abandon its previous written permission for the camp’s trips. Despite the fact that at least four people have died in the past 10 years while on trips guided by the commercial outfitters, the Department now demands that Summer’s Best Two Weeks either pay the cartel upward of $30,000 to take its campers down the Lower Yough, or stay off the river entirely.

Summer’s Best Two Weeks is both unwilling and unable to pay the outfitters for trips the camp has safely been handling itself for more than three decades—especially when everyone else is free to raft without interference from the outfitters. The Department’s effort to impose a more dangerous, more expensive service on the public demonstrates precisely the kind of abuse of power, loss of rights and exclusion that follows whenever government creates a cartel.

Fortunately, the Institute for Justice is paddling to the rescue.

The Pennsylvania Constitution requires that restrictions on liberty bear a “real and substantial relationship” to a legitimate government purpose. When the court sees that the Department’s decision serves only to protect the profits of private companies, we are certain that Summer’s Best Two Weeks will be free to resume its traditional rite of passage, rafting on the Lower Yough without having to worry about a river of red tape.

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