Decades-long battle over 2 B.C. lakes shines light on public access to Crown lands

A legal battle that has pitted Canada’s largest private ranch against a small recreation club in British Columbia has exposed the gaps in provincial legislation when it comes to access to public property, say legal experts. 

The case centres around two lakes in the rolling grasslands of B.C.’s Nicola Valley, 300 kilometres northeast of Vancouver. 

Minnie Lake and Stoney Lake, which are both stocked with trout, are considered Crown assets. But last month, B.C.’s Court of Appeal ruled that the general public can’t visit or fish on them, because the only way to get there would be by trespassing on private property belonging to the Douglas Lake Cattle Company.

Deborah Curran, who is with the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria, said it was a sound legal decision, but the fact that the public is shut out from a public lake makes it clear that legislation needs to be beefed up. 

“There has to be a common solution that respects private property rights but at the same time acknowledges that there is a public right to access public resources,” Curran said. 

The lakes near Merritt, B.C., have been at the centre of a decades-long fight waged by Rick McGowan and other members of the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club, who accuse the sprawling ranch operated by the Douglas Lake Cattle Company (DLCC) of trying to seal Minnie and Stoney off for their own private benefit. 

Today, the only way the general public can legally fish on those lakes is to book a stay in DLCC’s lodge, cabin or yurts.

‘This is like a hobby to him’

DLCC is owned by Stan Kroenke, an American billionaire who also owns some of the world’s most profitable professional sports teams, including the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, the NBA’s Denver Nuggets and Arsenal Football Club in the English Premier League.

“The guy has like eight or nine billion dollars,” said McGowan, a director with the fish and game club. “This is like a hobby to him, and for people like us, we retire in this country and all we want to do is go recreate and go put our little boat in the lake and go fishing.”

The case has been repeatedly framed as a David and Goliath battle, but Joe Gardner, the vice-president of DLCC, insists money has nothing to do with it. 

The land is “either private or it isn’t,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it is your last dime … you want to protect your land.”

McGowan and members of the club have been pushing for access to the lakes and others in the area for years.

Nearly a decade ago, they frequently cut the locks on a fence blocking the road to Minnie and Stoney lakes. McGowan has been arrested for trespassing more than once.

But the larger case eventually ended up in court. 

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