A range war in the west for trophy trout lakes

Story by Mark Hume with Photos by Nick Didlick

On one side of the fence is E. Stanley Kroenke, an American multi-billionaire whose Douglas Lake Cattle Co. runs 20,000 head of cattle on more than 500,000 acres of rolling grasslands and pine forest in southern British Columbia.

On the other side is a small group of local fishermen from Merritt, who have long been eyeing the prime trout lakes that now lie beyond their reach. As kids and young men they fished those lakes, which grow some of the biggest and most beautiful rainbow trout in the West, but for years they have been kept out by locked ranch gates.

Those lakes can now only be accessed by booking a visit with the Douglas Lake Cattle Co. A mere $250 will get you a night s stay at Stoney Lake Lodge and a shot at the trophy trout.

You know how these range wars usually go. The big, powerful ranch owner runs off the little dirt farmers and continues to rule his kingdom the way he wants.

But maybe not this time.

The local anglers are tough minded and have done their homework. They are standing their ground, demanding access to the lakes which they say have illegally been put behind fences and locked gates. And they are getting ready to go to court if they can’t convince the provincial government to take up their cause.

The Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club has opened a bank account to accept legal donations. Checks should be made out to Public Access to Lakes and Streams, and should be sent to the club at P.O. Box 2242, Merritt, B.C., Canada, V1K 1B8.

“What is happening here,” said Rick McGowan, a retired provincial highways engineer,” is that the Douglas Lake Ranch is trying to take control of public land by putting up gates on public roads, or digging up public roads and nobody in government is doing anything about it. So we are trying to fight it ourselves.”
Mr. McGowan and a small group of other anglers climbed over one of the locked ranch gate last spring, walked on to the ice then still covering the water, and began to fish.

They let the RCMP know they were going and were ready to be arrested.

The police came and watched. As did some ranch hands. But the anglers were allowed to fish and then walk away.

Later they were asked to a meeting between the RCMP, the ranch, and the Ministry of Highways. There they were told they were in the wrong. And the gate has stayed locked since. “We are up against Goliath big time,” says Mr. McGowan who is frustrated by the lack of support the fishermen are getting from government.

The focus of protests so far has been Minnie Lake, which over the years Douglas Lake Ranch has carefully developed into one of the top trophy fly fishing lakes in North America. The lake is public, but the land around it is private, allowing the ranch to market it, and nearby Stoney Lake, as exclusive fishing holes to those willing to pay to play.

But Mr. McGowan says the ranch can only offer that exclusive fishing because a long-used public road that leads right to the lake has been locked up.
Ranch officials repeatedly declined comment when contacted on the matter. But the ranch has long maintained the road to the lake is privately owned, and ranch manager Joe Gardner has spoken out in the past about the need to protect the ranch’s most important asset, its grasslands, from damage caused by trespassers. One assumes he has the same attitude about “protecting” what the ranch claims is another asset the trout.

In letters and e-mails to the protesters, officials with the provincial Ministry of Transportation say the government cannot produce sufficient evidence to prove the road to Minnie Lake is public. So they aren t taking the ranch on in a legal fight.

But Mr. McGowan disagrees. He has produced a Crown land grant, dated 1897, which shows a public road running beside Minnie Lake. And he says other public roads have been established on the ranch since then.

“I surveyed all those roads. That’s how I know they are public,” he said of Minnie Lake Road 056, Stoney Lake Road 281 and Pennask Lake Road 064.

Ed Hendricks, owner of Ponderosa Sports, which sells hunting and fishing tackle in Merritt, had an e-mail exchange with Sherry Eland, district manager with the Transportation Ministry, in which he was told the road to Minnie Lake is not part of the provincial highway system, because it was never formally dedicated.

But Mr. Hendricks says if it wasn’t a public road, it wouldn’t have a highways department number. And he points out that government graders have worked on the road in the past. Section 42 of the B.C. Transportation Act states: “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.”

Ms. Eland wrote that “there has been no public maintenance of the road since 1976, and we have been advised there is insufficient evidence to support a section 42 claim. Although in the past the ministry asserted section 42 on this route, it has never been tested in the court . At the present the ministry will not oppose or support a section 42 claim.”

However, that is not in line with a 1996 letter Mr. Hendricks has a copy of, in which the then district highways manager, D.S. Kirk, wrote to Mr. Gardner.

“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,” Mr. Kirk wrote. “On the matter of the wooden gate I would request that public access not be restricted and that the gate remain unlocked.”

Mr. Hendricks said when the anglers sat down with the ranch, the police and the Ministry, in August, Ms. Eland repeated the argument about the roads being private.

He later expressed his frustration in a letter to her, in which he states: “We sat in on a meeting that we thought was to solve or begin to solve the problem of a locked gate on a public road. We believe that the RCMP were of that opinion as well.
Wow! Were we wrong. We may as well have gone fishing. What a charade that was! We sat and listened to you tell us the same misinformation that you have already tried to force feed us. This time you have done it with witnesses.”

“Joe Gardner didn’t have to be there at the meeting because you portrayed yourself as the manager of Douglas Lake Ranch in your remarkable and questionable defence of the Ranch. Never once did you mention that that gate maybe shouldn t have been locked until there was formal closure of that public road. You used terms like private water and Private land under the water and private bridges on a travelled way and the land underneath the travelled way was private and the road never touched those lakes over and over, but you failed to talk about the gate being locked and blocking a public road. Nobody can give permission for that to happen and we don t believe that permission was ever given for that to happen. It is obvious that you will force all this to come out in a court of law. The sooner the better as far as we are concerned.”

Mr. Hendricks also wrote to the Deputy Minister of Highways, demanding action.

“The locked gate is illegal and has to be removed,” he states.” [Ms. Eland] is maintaining that if we want it removed we have to take it to court which again is completely the opposite to the truth. The gate is illegal, the road is public, the Douglas Lake Cattle Co wants it to be private so it is up to them to take it to court and prove it is private . . .We ask that you direct your staff to remove that locked gate forthwith.”

Mr. Hendricks said he is not hopeful the government, which has been wringing its hands about this issue for months, will suddenly act in the interest of the little guys. So, while they await a formal reply from the Deputy Minister, more on-the-water action is being planned.

There could be more protest fisheries soon, he said. “But next time we won t climb over the gate. We ll take the gate down.”
And he says province-wide fund raising effort is being planned, with first step coming when the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club set up an account to accept donations. [See details at end of story.] A motion to that effect went before the BC Wildlife Federation at its annual general meeting, in the spring of 2012. But surprisingly the motion didn’t pass. The presence of several Liberal MLA’s at the convention was apparently enough to make a block vote against, and narrowly defeat the motion. The decision by the BC Wildlife Federation not to fight for access for fishermen, and by association, hunters, was an eye opener to the small group from Merritt. But they have decided not to give up, and are hoping to raise enough money to be able to afford the services of Joe Arvay,  a top Vancouver lawyer, who just happens to love fly fishing and who has a reputation for being a giant killer in court.

Put all this together and it means that, up on the Douglas Lake Ranch, the high paying fishermen may be enjoying their last casts on private waters.
In the wild West, the big cattle ranchers always ran things the way they wanted. And they appear to still hold sway with the provincial government. But if this case gets to court, it won t matter how much money or political influence Mr. Kroenke has – what will count is the legal record. And if the Crown land grant of 1897 holds up to a judge’s scrutiny, Minnie and Stoney Lakes could once again be open to public fishing, by court  order.

[Editor’s note: Anglers who want to contribute, can send donations to the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club, P.O. Box 2242, Merritt, B.C., Canada, V1K 1B8. Checks should be made out to ‘Public Access to Lakes and Streams’.]

COMMENTS:

I sincerely hope that the government will side with the little guy this time around. Far too long have we seen the rich man and corporations take advantage of the law and when access is cut off to a public road it should be opened and all aloud to use.  Good luck on this endeavor. – Carolyne Strohmann

Comment:

The problem is that the Ministry of Transportation has aligned itself with Douglas Lake Cattle Co. The road was maintained and provided access to the Minnie and Stony Lake area and to the lakes and and places beyond for some 75 years with the consent of the owners of that private property. It was a public road for 75 years and is still the only road to some of the district lots beyond the gate. It is a public raod until the government and Douglas Lake Cattle Co together, without opposition from the public, formally close the road. That can never happen because of the district lots that it provides access to. Every separate lot needs access. We think that every public lake should have access also. A public lake is public land with water on it.Why have public lakes that the public can not get to. That doesn’t make sense. – Ed Hendricks.

Comment:

Hard to believe that the provincial liberal government has been unwilling to protect the public domain and how private money  interests have so far succeeded in denying lawful entry to the citizenry, especially in this day and age when the rule of law is supposedly paramount. This issue requires full public exposure on many fronts. I will certainly provide a donation to the legal fund and will offer my services as a retired litigation lawyer in any way I can. – Herbert H. Maier