British Columbia

B.C. court to hear cattle ranch's appeal against public access to Merritt-area lakes

Canada’s largest working cattle ranch hopes to convince B.C.’s Court of Appeal to overturn a 2018 ruling that said the public should be allowed to access two lakes near Merritt, B.C.

Ranch aims to overturn B.C. Supreme Court ruling saying anglers have right to use Minnie Lake and Stoney Lake

The Douglas Lake Cattle Company was founded June 30, 1886 and has been operating continuously since.

Canada's largest working cattle ranch hopes to convince B.C.'s Court of Appeal to overturn a 2018 ruling that said the public should be allowed to access two lakes near Merritt, B.C.

It's the latest development in a lengthy court battle between the Douglas Lake Cattle Company (DLCC) and a small recreation club in Merritt over who should be allowed access to public areas enclosed by private property.

In December 2018 a justice of the Supreme Court of B.C. ruled that Minnie Lake and Stoney Lake in the Nicola Valley should be publicly accessible.

The lakes and a local road are surrounded by private ranch lands owned by the company, which is owned by U.S. billionaire Stan Kroenke.

For years, access to Minnie Lake and Stoney Lake had been blocked by fences and locked gates.

The 2018 ruling ordered those gates to be removed so the public could access the lakes.

The court said at the time it would be "nonsensical" for a government to retain rights to a lake if a single owner purchasing all land surrounding it could prohibit use.

It also clarified that Stoney Lake Road, which the DLCC had previously closed to the public, was a public road because public money had been spent on it and it had previously been a historic trail from a traditional Indigenous village.

The victory was a culmination of the advocacy from the Nicola Valley Fish & Game Club, and most notably Merritt resident Rick McGowan, who for decades maintained that the DLCC had unlawfully prohibited access for anglers and other people seeking recreation there.

"We thought we would like to try to make a difference and try to see if we could possibly save the right for all future generations to access public property," he said.

"In the Nicola Valley there are locked gates everywhere and most of them are illegal."

Rick McGowan's wife, Patti McGowan, and his granddaughter stand beside a frozen-over Stoney Lake in December 2018, a week after public access was granted by the B.C. Supreme Court. (Rick McGowan)

According to the Outdoor Recreation Council of B.C., which has been allowed to intervene on behalf of the fish and game club for the appeal, the DLCC seeks an order declaring there is no public access to Stoney Lake and that access to Minnie Lake is only by way of Wasley Creek. 

"This case raises important questions about the extent of the public's right to cross private property to access public resources such as lakes, hiking trails and wilderness," said Morgan Blakley, a lawyer for the council, which represents 100,000 outdoor recreation users in the province.

"The decision could have implications for public access across the province and brings to bear hundreds of years of case law."  

The appeal is scheduled for two days, starting at 10 a.m. PT Monday.

With files from Bob Keating

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