British Columbia

Anglers win Supreme Court battle against U.S. billionaire over access to lakes, roads

A precedent-setting B.C. Supreme Court decision has ruled that the public should be able to access fishing lakes near Merritt, B.C., after years of what has been described as a "David and Goliath" battle.

'David and Goliath' legal battle has been going on for years

The 200,000-hectare property — reputed to be the largest working cattle ranch in Canada — is owned by billionaire Stan Kroenke.

A precedent-setting B.C. Supreme Court decision has ruled that the public should be able to access fishing lakes near Merritt, B.C., after years of what has been described as a "David and Goliath" legal battle.

For years, the Douglas Lake Cattle Company (DLCC), the largest working ranch in Canada, owned by U.S. billionaire Stan Kroenke, and a group of determined anglers have been going head to head.

Their dispute centred primarily on access to two fishing lakes and a road.

Minnie Lake and Stoney Lake are surrounded by land owned by the large ranch, which claimed the access roads, water bodies and fish in them are private property.

Members of the Nicola Valley Fish and Game club argued the lakes and roadway are Crown land and should be free for anyone to use.

In a lengthy decision released Friday, which cited historical documents, photos, and testimony from members of the Indigenous community, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Joel Groves determined that both lakes are public.

"It would be nonsensical for a government to retain the rights to a lake if, by virtue of a single owner purchasing all the land surrounding a lake, that owner could prohibit public use or ownership of the lake," wrote Groves.

"It only makes sense that government would have retained the ownership of bodies of water, lakes, with the intention of the public being allowed to access water they retained."

Ownership of fish, roads also determined

Also at issue was the question of Stoney Lake Road, which the DLCC had previously closed to the public.

Groves ruled that Stoney Lake Road is a public road, because there have been public expenditures on the road and because it was previously a historic trail from a traditional Indigenous village.

The court also rejected the DLCC argument that Stoney Lake is not a public lake, but an "ephemeral pond, which comes and goes on occasion."

"It is hard to imagine how a pond that regularly dries up would miraculously be stocked again with fish for the benefit of Aboriginal fishers when, as suggested by DLCC, there is no natural creek that flows into the ephemeral pond," wrote Groves.

The DLCC had also claimed ownership of fish in both Minnie and Stoney lakes, saying it had stocked both lakes after closing off public access to them. 

But the judge ruled that because the fish are wild animals not being directly cared for, and swim in public bodies of water, they are not the property of the DLCC.

"I find that the act of releasing fish into government water, into a lake that is primarily public, and the act of those fish feeding and growing through the natural process in government water, prohibits any assertion of ownership," he wrote.

The decision also criticized the province for failing to "prohibit what was an illegal obstruction of a public road by a corporate entity, for its own benefit."

With files from Brady Strachan

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story contained a picture of Corbett Lake. Corbett Lake is not one of the lakes referenced in the court decision. The picture has been replaced.
    Dec 10, 2018 12:21 PM PT

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