One of the richest men in the world has won the right to stop anglers from accessing two lakes on his mammoth ranch, even though the lakes are owned by the public.
The B.C. Appeal Court ruled on Friday (March 5) that U.S. billionaire Stan Kroenke, owner of the Douglas Lake Ranch, the largest ranch in Canada, can block the public from crossing his property to fish on Stoney and Minnie lakes, even though the lakes are Crown property.
Because B.C. government laws fail to protect the public’s right to travel on private land to get to publicly owned lakes and streams, the Appeal Court judge overruled portions of Justice Joel Groves’ 2018 decision, which had criticized the RCMP and government staff for collaborating over many years with Kroenke’s ranch staff to deny fishers access.
The case, which the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club initially launched in 2013, is one of the most important in B.C. history regarding determining how much right the public has to access scores of lakes and waterways in the province that are surrounded by private land.
“The [Nicola Valley] club invites us to recognize a right to cross private land where it is necessary to do so to access a lake on land reserved to the Crown for the benefit of the public. In my view, while this argument may attract considerable public support, it has no support in our law,” wrote Justice Peter Willcock, with the agreement of justices Laurie Ann Fenlon and Peter Voith.
“Unlike other jurisdictions, British Columbia does not have public access legislation. The absence of such legislation reflects a policy decision by the legislature that is the focus of some debate. The debate, however, is with respect to the wisdom of the policy decision that has been made, not with respect to the law.”
While the Appeal Court judges confirmed the fish in the lakes are not owned by the Douglas Lake Ranch, Willcock accepted a narrow argument by Kroenke’s lawyers that an old Crown-owned wagon road that Justice Groves had said should provide anglers access does not quite reach the edge of Stoney or Minnie lakes.
Kroenke is owner of the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche, the NFL’s L.A. Rams and English Premier League’s Arsenal. Married to a scion of the Walmart family, Ann Walton, Kroenke is a land developer who also owns large ranches in the U.S. Forbes Magazine estimates his worth at US$8.5 billion.
The overriding issues raised by the Douglas Lake Ranch case, Groves said in 2018, have major implications for British Columbians’ right to access the natural world. The case is also seen as part of a much bigger international movement, especially in Europe, called the “freedom to roam” and “the right of public access to the wilderness.”
The B.C. Appeal Court ruling points to the way various B.C. governments have over the decades gone out of their way to create a Trespassing Act that gives tremendous control to private property owners, particularly ranchers and cattle companies. Unlike many provinces and countries, Victoria has failed to protect the rights of people to access the wilderness.
“The [Nicola Valley] fishing club has effectively been forced to take over the role of the attorney general as the guardian of public rights,” said the club’s lawyer, Christopher Harvey. “This is not a happy judgment so far as public rights are concerned. There has always been conflict between private owners of rural land and back-country recreationalists. Most of us expect that public lakes in the province should be publicly accessible.”
Since Kroenke’s legal team was found by the judge to have won at least part of the decision, the judges ruled the small fishing club, based in Merritt, will not only have to pay all its own court costs, estimated in the hundreds of thousands, but it will also have to pay the billionaire’s appeal legal costs. In the past, the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club has held picnics and raffles to raise funds to take on the ranch owner.
Harvey said the judges’ decision holds up highly contentious legal points “that may have to be resolved by the Supreme Court of Canada, if the [Nicola] fishing club can somehow manage another appeal. The provincial Attorney General has a duty to enforce public rights and normally does so, but that has not happened in this case, so the fishing club is very much on its own.”