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Jack Knox: A David and Goliath fight over back country

The Douglas Lake Ranch used to be owned by Chunky Woodward. Chunky, president of the Woodward’s department stores, was rich.
photo - no trespassing sign

Jack Knox mugshot genericThe Douglas Lake Ranch used to be owned by Chunky Woodward.

Chunky, president of the Woodward’s department stores, was rich. In the 1970s there were stories — possibly true — of him driving into Kamloops from the ranch, big gold buckle on his belt, and rounding up the street drunks and taking them for a meal.

Well, there’s rich and then there’s rich. Stan Kroenke, the ranch’s current owner, is a multi-billionaire, the 148th wealthiest person in the world, according to Forbes. The magazine said he made $700 million US just by moving his football team, the Rams, to Los Angeles, part of a deal in which he was said to have transferred the Denver Nuggets of the NBA and the Colorado Avalanche of the NHL to his wife, the Walmart heiress. He’s also the majority owner of Britain’s Arsenal soccer club. His commercial real estate holdings are massive. Douglas Lake, Canada’s largest working spread, is just one of his cattle ranches.

That makes the current court case in which the Douglas Lake Cattle Co. is suing the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club a true David-versus-Goliath tale.

It’s also one with implications on Vancouver Island and elsewhere in B.C. where outdoor enthusiasts increasingly find backcountry access blocked by the owners of private lands.

It goes like this: in Western Canada, the law has generally held that the beds of lakes and rivers belong to the Crown, meaning that even when they’re surrounded by private property, you, as a member of the public, are free to fish them — as long as you can get to the water, either by public road or via a well-established right-of-way. B.C. is criss-crossed with backroads that people have treated as public while heading off to hike or cast a fly or shoot something.

Increasingly, though, outdoor types have found previously accessible properties blocked. In the Interior, the Nicola Valley club has spent decades trying to get back into a couple of lakes that Douglas Lake has reserved for its fishing resort guests. After the club petitioned the court to declare the ranch had improperly denied access, Douglas Lake responded by taking the long- simmering dispute to a full-blown (and expensive) trial.

The case is before the B.C. Supreme Court in Kamloops right now. Douglas Lake says that not only is the access private, but so are the trout, since the ranch stocks the lakes. It also argues that because the ranch flooded the lakes beyond their natural boundaries, the land submerged under the expanded portion is private, putting the water above off limits.

The Nicola Valley club has been given financial support by other outdoor groups, the B.C. Wildlife Federation and West Coast Environmental Law. Andrew Gage, a lawyer with the latter, says his organization got involved in part because it was worried about financial muscle being applied to silence a weaker adversary in a case of public interest — basically, the question of whether lakes and the fish in them can be privatized, with the public left on the outside looking in. And yes, the issues being decided apply across the province.

In fact, they’re of particular interest on Vancouver Island, where the E&N land grants of the 19th century left much of the backcountry in private hands, particularly those of logging companies, today.

Last year, the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre, in a report for the Outdoor Recreation Council of B.C., documented some examples of conflict on the Island:

• The dream of the 700-kilometre Vancouver Island Spine Trail, joining together existing hiking routes along the old railway line, won’t come true until three big gaps across forest-company land are bridged.

• The B.C. Federation of Fly Fishers says Crown-owned Island lakes stocked with fish paid for with public money have been cut off.

• The Freshwater Fisheries Society of B.C. no longer stock about 30 lakes, mostly on central Vancouver Island, because access through private forests has been restricted. Among the examples: Jarvis and Weeks Lakes in the Sooke watershed and Timberland, Crystal and McKay Lakes near Cassidy.

This isn’t a black-and-white story. Private and public interests do need to be balanced. Property owners can argue they have good reasons — vandalism, liability fears, the threat of fire — to block access. Being rich doesn’t make Kroenke wrong. It does, however, make it relatively easy for him to advance his side of the dispute.

Meanwhile, it has fallen on the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club, a handful of working stiffs with fishing rods and pickup trucks, to represent what they see as the public interest. Where is B.C.’s political leadership in all of this?

Nowhere, says the club’s Rick McGowan. Government lawyers are in court, but not engaged in the battle. “Our little club is being left to fight this alone.”