A range war of sorts has broken out in the British Columbia Interior over public access to Crown property on Canada's largest working cattle ranch.
The fight is setting small-town residents against E. Stanley Kroenke, an American with a net worth of $2.9-billion, whose Douglas Lake Cattle Co. runs 20,000 head of cattle on more than 500,000 acres of sweeping grasslands and pine forests near Merritt, 300 kilometres east of Vancouver.
The Douglas Lake Ranch consists of 164,000 deeded acres and another 350,000 acres of Crown land held under grazing lease. And it is that Crown land that is at the heart of the conflict.
"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, who recently joined a small group of anglers who clambered over a locked ranch gate to go "protest" fishing in a lake the ranch has reserved for paying customers, said it feels like "we are up against Goliath, big time."
But he also said there is growing support in Merritt, where people are increasingly frustrated about being denied access to go hunting, hiking, bird watching or fishing in lakes on Crown land controlled by the ranch.
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 trout-fishing lakes in North America.
The lake is public, but the land around it is private, allowing Douglas Lake Ranch to market it, and nearby Stoney Lake, as exclusive fishing holes to those willing to pay for access. (A night at the Stoney Lake Lodge costs $250.)
Mr. McGowan said the ranch can only offer exclusive fishing because the public has been locked out.
Ranch officials declined comment this week, saying the matter is under study and a statement will be made later. 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.
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.
But Mr. McGowan disagrees. He 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 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, recently had an e-mail exchange with Sherry Eland, district manager with the Transportation Ministry, in which he complained about public roads being blocked on the ranch. But 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, who was not available for an interview, told Mr. Hendricks 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."
Mr. Hendricks said that is not in line with a 1996 letter he has a copy of, in which the then district highways manager, D.S. Kirk, wrote to Mr. Gardner, then and now ranch manager.
"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."
Norm Parkes, regional director for the Transportation Ministry, said the dispute has triggered an intense review of the status of all the roads in the area.