Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Saturday, February 4th, 2023

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Sportsmen Since 1967

Little ‘J’ case ruling will loom large across state

By Deborah Weisberg Contributing Writer

Huntingdon, Pa. — It could be months before a ruling with
statewide implications is handed down in the trial over access
rights on the Little Juniata River.

The week-long trial of the Commonwealth v. Don Beaver ended June
16 in Huntingdon County Common Pleas Court, but Judge Stewart Kurtz
has asked both sides in the case for additional information – a
process that is expected to last until fall.

At issue is the Little J’s navigability, and whether Beaver and
his Spring Ridge Club are entitled to exclude non-members from a
1.3-mile stretch of the streambed near Spruce Creek at Espy
Farm.

Both sides in the trial relied on historical evidence to make
their case. Testifying as an expert for the plaintiffs – the
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the
Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, the Pennsylvania
Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and local fishing
guide Allan Bright – historian Judy Heberling, of Heberling
Associates Inc., described how the Little Juniata was used as a key
highway of commerce in central Pennsylvania from just after the
Revolutionary War until the mid-1800s, when it was supplanted by
the railroad.

She described the “boom or bust” economy of the Little Juniata
Valley frontier when prospectors and other fortune seekers set up
iron foundries and forges, mined limestone, and milled grain, then
shipped it on the Little Juniata River and other waterways.

“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.”

But Beaver’s attorneys downplayed the Little Juniata’s value as
a highway, using Nancy Shedd, the former president and executive
director of the Huntingdon County Historical Society, and
hydro-geologists, to explain how the river was too shallow and its
flow too inconsistent for broad commercial use. They shot down as
meaningless another assertion by the plaintiffs, that state
lawmakers declared the Little Juniata River navigable in the late
1700s and early 1800s.

Although he would not comment for this story, Charles Bierbach,
one of Beaver’s attorneys, indicated before the trial that only
judicial, or court, declarations of navigability matter. That is
what Kurtz will decide.

Given the number of state agencies filing suit against Beaver
and the club, there were more attorneys at the trial than
spectators, although a handful of local farmers and fly-fishermen
watched the proceedings.

”Not everyone has a silver spoon,” said Bob Kreider, of Palmyra,
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,” he said, “people have a right
to make a profit. I’m just here to see if there’s a happy
medium.”

Absent from the courtroom last month was Allan Bright, the local
fishing guide who has joined in the state’s suit. “I’ve had 14
years of this,” he said on the eve of the trial. “I’m going to fish
Penns Creek tomorrow.”

He is the only plaintiff seeking damages against Beaver and the
club, claiming that their advertising the Little Juniata as private
water and forcing non-members off the stream has hurt his business.
His proceeding with his claim depends on the state winning the
navigability case.

“A lot of people think the entire river is closed,” said Bright,
whose home and tackle shop, Spruce Creek Outfitters, are located
near Espy Farm on the Little Juniata River at Spruce Creek.
“There’s a lot of misinformation being put out there by some of the
people involved. I tell the fishermen, just keep your feet wet and
you’ll be okay.”

Bright said there are concerns that, if the state loses its
case, other property owners on the Little Juniata will post more of
the streambed and try to charge anglers to fish the river.

Water rights and public stream access are issues for anglers and
landowners nationwide. Though the posting of riparian property is
seldom challenged, submerged land and water rights can be murky,
with laws varying from state to state. Navigability is usually the
determining factor in whether a river belongs to the public.

DEP spokesman Kurt Knaus said the Little Juniata decision could
have far-reaching implications, statewide. ”This really will be a
landmark case for water law in Pennsylvania,” Knaus said. “A
decision here by the court will be used in future cases in
determining water laws access.”

Each side in the Little Juniata case has indicated it would
appeal an unfavorable decision.

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