KAMLOOPS — Members of the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club walked out of the Kamloops Courthouse on Friday in jubilation, now knowing the gates to Stoney Lake Road will be unlocked and public access to both Stoney and Minnie Lakes near Merritt has been granted.
"It's definitely a win," said spokesperson for the fish and game club Rick McGowan, who's been fighting for public rights to the lakes for 30 years. "We have determined that this judge feels there should be public access to all public places, especially lakes and streams, which is incredibly important."
As part of the ruling by Supreme Court Justice Joel Groves, members of the club and other people can access the lakes, but only by foot and with boats that can be carried in like a canoe or belly boat. Fishermen can only catch and release.
"For [Groves] to limit the access to the lake to walk-in only and catch-and-release contradicts provincial fishing regulations," noted McGowan. "But maybe that's the door he was trying to open as far as negotiations."
Over the years, parts of Stoney Lake Road were flooded by the Douglas Lake Cattle Company to alter the levels of Stoney and Minnie Lakes.
While Groves determined that Stoney Lake Road is public and people can freely access the lakes via the road, he said in his ruling that "it would be open to the DLCC [Douglas Lake Cattle Company] to mark with buoys, or by other means, the areas of land above this determined high water mark of the lake, which the DLCC has flooded pursuant to its water license."
In other words, Groves said the lake is accessible to the public within the original high watermark, but outer portions of both Minnie and Stoney Lake that the company flooded remain private.
"The point where there is a bit of a gray area relates to travelling on water over private land," said lawyer for the club Christopher Harvey. "I think he did not decide that point, but he said the Legislature should."
McGowan thinks "that was [Groves'] trade-off to the large corporations in trying to limit the access, but I'm not quite sure if he really can limit it. If the road goes right into the lake, why can't you take a boat there?"
As for ownership of the fish, most of which have been feed and released into the lakes by the Douglas Lake Cattle Company, Groves said when the fish are released into a public lake, they essential become public.
"Noting that the majority of both lakes are public bodies of water, the fish that the DLCC has released into these public bodies of water swim in public water," read Groves during his decision. "As such, I agree with the submissions of the club and the province that the act of releasing the fish creates a circumstance where the fish do not remain the property of the DLCC."
The Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club knows this is a victory, but it's been a long and costly process with $150,000 spent on legal costs. It is ready to face another battle with the Corbett Lake Lodge, also near Merritt, over public access to the lake.
"All the owners of the Corbett Lake Lodge were here, and now they're going to be aware that the public has a right to access the water," said McGowan.
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