KAMLOOPS — Monday marked the beginning of a contentious civil case at B.C. Supreme Court in Kamloops.
The Douglas Lake Cattle Company is suing the Nicola Valley Fish and Game club in a fight over public access to two prominent fishing lakes near Merritt, Stoney and Minnie Lakes.
The company, owned by American billionaire Stan Kroenke, contends the lakes and the surrounding property are privately owned and there should be no public access.
The club has been fighting for access to the lakes for more than three decades.
"They don't own it. They're trying to take advantage of the fact that they're big and they can just lock a road and keep the public out and intimidate them," says Director of the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club Rick McGowan. "We're basically crying foul, saying that's not right. It's a public road."
Members of the club has been jumping a gate for years and fishing there any way — a gate the club says has been locked up since the early 1990s, according to the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club. The Douglas Lake Ranch says it was locked up in 1979.
The ranch is suing the Fish and Game Club for trepassing. But the club says the ranch has no ownership over Stoney Lake Road nor the two lakes.
"All residents of B.C., and in fact Canada, have an inherent right to freely access all Crown lands for any recreational use, and these rights have been taken away from us, and essentially that's what this court case is all about. We have a large land owner who wants to take public, Crown land away from the public for their own use," says McGowan.
The ranch is arguing that Stoney Lake Road has no public access to both Minnie and Stoney Lakes. It's also arguing the fish in those lakes are private — trophy fish that were supplied by the ranch.
Through all this, the province has taken a mainly neutral stance, a frustration for the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club.
"It's kind of bizarre because the government lawyers are sitting here and taking no position. It's not our fish and game club's job to look after the natural resources. We're doing it, and the government is not helping, not doing anything."
Thanks to generous donations, the club has raised more than $100,000 to pay for legal fees, which may not last long in a civil case that's expected to last the next month.
But McGowan say it's all worth it.
"It is a good fight," he says. "We kind of have to win it. If we lose this, it's going to set a precedent for many land owners to lock off public property."
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