Hunters and fishermen in a small town in British Columbia are going to court against Canada's largest working cattle ranch, which is owned by Stanley Kroenke, one of the richest men in America.
"It's a David-and-Goliath scenario all right," said Rick McGowan of the legal challenge his 120-member Nicola Valley Fish and Gun Club is bringing against the Douglas Lake Cattle Co.
The club filed a petition with the Supreme Court of British Columbia this week, hoping to force the ranch to reopen a road that has been closed by a locked gate and barricade for years, restricting access to Minnie and Stoney Lakes.
The owner of the 500,000-acre ranch near Merritt, about 300 kilometres east of Vancouver, is a sports and real-estate magnate with net worth of $5-billion, according to Forbes. Mr. Kroenke, who owns the Colorado Avalanche, St. Louis Rams and Arsenal soccer team, bought the ranch for $68-million in 2003 from Bernie Ebbers, who was later convicted for orchestrating an $11-billion accounting fraud at WorldCom.
Mr. Kroenke, who rarely speaks to the media, could not be reached for comment, but a ranch official dismissed the case as being without merit.
The legal challenge comes after years of feuding between the ranch and the club, whose members claim a provincial road has been illegally blocked so the lakes could be developed as exclusive fishing waters. The ranch charges $60 a day to fish on its property and $250 a night to stay at Stoney Lake Lodge.
Two years ago, the Liberal government refused pleas from the club to take legal action against the ranch, with officials from the highways ministry saying there wasn't enough evidence to support the claim the blocked road was a public right of way.
Now the club members, some of whom are retired provincial highways employees, have searched through the government's own files to produce what they feel is compelling documentary evidence that the road is in fact public and has been for more than 140 years.
Mr. McGowan, a club spokesman, said that after holding potluck dinners and other events, the club has finally raised enough money to go to court. "Basically what we are saying is we want a permanent injunction to remove the locks and the gate off the public road," said Mr. McGowan, who was an engineering aide with the B.C. highways ministry for 24 years.
He states in an affidavit that one of his last work assignments before leaving government was to survey the Stoney Lake Road in 1998.
The club's lawyer, John Nelson, filed affidavits, government records, old maps, a Crown land grant from 1897 and letters from highway officials to the ranch, asking that the gate be removed. The respondents have 21 days to reply to the petition, which is based on allegations not yet tested in court.
"My clients are very passionate about this issue and they have put a lot of work into researching it," Mr. Nelson said. "It will be very interesting to see how the courts deal with this."
The petition, which also names the province of B.C. as a respondent, seeks a declaration the road is "a provincial public highway" and an order for the ranch to stop "blocking the road with locked gates, logs or boulders."
Ranch manager Joe Gardner said the ranch, which has operated in the hills around Merritt since 1872, regrets that the dispute has reached this stage.
"Certainly we do not want to go to court and did not choose that route – they did. And so that's what we'll deal with. Those are the cards that have been dealt," he said. "It's sad but maybe that's what's [got to happen] next."
Mr. Gardner said the ranch realigned the road in the 1970s, closing the old right of way to Minnie and Stoney Lakes. He said the disputed road is private, not public.
In an affidavit, however, Gary Watson, a retired heavy-machine operator, says he graded the road regularly for the ministry of highways during the 1970s. Under the B.C. Transportation Act, any road the government maintains "is deemed and declared to be a highway."
In another affidavit, Brian Niehaus, a retired highways technician, said that in 1976 he filed a report, which is still in the government files, indexing Stoney Lake Road as a provincial highway.
Mr. Gardner said he had not seen the affidavits and could not respond to specific allegations. "I suppose the good news about it going before the court would be that it would be settled," he said.