Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club members have brought forward new evidence they say proves that the public has the right to access and use Stoney and Minnie Lakes through a long-disputed road.
In May, a Freedom of Information Request submitted by local angler Ed Hendricks turned up the current provincial highways maintenance contract (Road Features Inventory), which lists the old Stoney Lake Road (Route 281) located on the 514,000-acre Douglas Lake Cattle Company (DLCC) property southeast of Merritt. The province's response to the request notes that roads listed in the inventory "may or may not be 'currently maintained.'" The current B.C. Road Register also lists route 281.
Stoney Lake Road, which only partially exists now and has not been maintained by the province in over 25 years, used to take travellers from Pennask Lake Road (route 64) south through Douglas Lake property by two public lakes, Stoney and Minnie, on through to Pennask Lake Road in section 683 of the ranch, which has now been blocked by fallen logs or dug up, according to game club members. Stoney Lake has also been flooded by DLCC, submerging a portion of the road anglers say provided a right of way.
"They've (DLCC) totally dug up the public road," says game club member Rick McGowan, who used to regularly drive Stoney Lake Road to access his family's campground on Paradise Lake.
"Years ago, this dispute started when he locked us out of our place at Paradise Lake, which is a public road as well…since the mid- '70s, they've locked out at least 20 lakes and roads in the area and it's escalating…our big problem is to kick the Ministry of Highways in the butt and get them to do their job. They're supposed to look after this thing for the people of British Columbia and not for private land owners, especially foreign land owners."
McGowan says he doesn't blame DLCC owner Stanley Kroenke, an American billionaire, who purchased the land in 2004 for about $93 million. He blames general manager Joe Gardner for blocking access to public lakes. Currently, a locked gate blocks the north-end access point to Stoney Lake Road.
The province says they do not consider Stoney Lake Road to be public.
"It's not public…these kinds of roads that aren't dedicated or legally surveyed, only the Supreme Court of British Columbia can declare them as a public road. So that old alignment has no legal status," says Sherry Eland, district manager of transportation for Thompson-Nicola.
Eland says there has never been public legal access to Stoney and Minnie Lakes because Pennask Lake Road never touched the water.
However, a survey carried out by McGowan in 1996 when he was a science technical officer for the Ministry of Transportation in Merritt shows an intact Stoney Lake Road falling well within the 20-metre right of way required to provide legal access to Stoney and Minnie Lakes. He points out that a campground and trail leading to Minnie Lake also provided a legal right of way.
McGowan says the fact that Stoney Lake Road was never gazetted is irrelevant, as it was graveled and aligned using public money.
Chapter 44 of the B.C. Transportation s Act states in Part 4, Section 42:
"…If public money is spent on a travelled road that is not a highway, the travelled road is deemed and declared to be a highway."
McGowan says the acting Transportation Minister would have to have signed off the road declaring it was no longer public, if Eland were correct.
Fraser-Nicola MLA Harry Lali, who was Minister of Transportation and Highways from 1998 to 2001, says he does not recall any minister ever declaring the road was turned from public to private.
Asked if he believes Stoney Lake Road is public, Lali said, "As far as I know, until somebody proves otherwise."
"They are so afraid to say or do anything that may hurt the corporate interests of this Liberal party that we have as a government. And I think that's part of the problem. The amount of interference that cabinet has in ministries and public servants being unable to do their job is absolutely phenomenal.
"There is a real fear factor, and that's not just highways, it's everywhere," Lali continued. "Public servants will talk to you off the record about stuff, but they are just absolutely afraid to go on the record or do anything or put anything on the record that is going to jeopardize the cozy relationship that corporate North America has with the BC Liberal government."
Lali notes the "tightening up of Freedom of Information" as also being part of the problem in the dispute between anglers and DLCC.
A 1996 letter from then-district highways manager Doug Kirk to Gardner indicates that the province's stance at that time was that Stoney Lake Road was public.
"It is the Ministry's understanding, based on previous correspondence, that both the relocated section of the Pennask Lake Road and the existing old road that passes by Minnie and Stoney Lakes are public," wrote Kirk.
In that same letter, Kirk recommended that Gardner take down the locked gate and replace it with a standard eight-metre cattle guard.
"In addition, I would request that public access not be restricted and that the gate remain unlocked."
Gardner did not return phone calls made by the Merritt News as of press time but told CBC News earlier this year that private property rights supersede the anglers' access rights. Gardner also said the ranch stocks the lake with its own private fish, which are off bounds to the public.
"…He claims his private fish are fin-clipped, and all the fish that we've been catching, there hasn't been one that's fin clipped," says McGowan. He claims the ranch does not have the proper permits to stock or transport live trout in British Columbia.
The game club plans to raise funds for a war chest, which they plan to use for a class-action lawsuit against DLCC. The game club accuses DLCC of numerous offences under Section 79 and 80 of the Transportation Act and Section 80 of the Wildlife Act.
The game club had hoped to acquire enough money for a legal case in April when it put forward a resolution before B.C. Wildlife Federation members at their annual conference. The resolution failed by a small margin. McGowan and Hendricks say they feel that political interference swayed the vote.