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Billionaire wins legal battle to deny public access to B.C. lakes

Wednesday, March 10th 2021, 1:38 pm - Only paying guests are able to access the ranch.

An attempt to visit B.C.'s Stoney and Minnie lakes could now result in a trespassing charge, even though the waters are publicly-owned, several media outlets report.

The trails leading to the lakes cut through a 200,000-hectare expanse of land called the Douglas Lake Cattle Company or Douglas Lake Ranch. It's owned by U.S. billionaire Stan Kroenke and his wife, Walmart heiress Anne Walton, and Kroenke has just won a decade-long legal battle to deny the public access to them.

In the past, Kroenke's used to block access to the kilometre-long stretches of water with locked gates and fences.

That prompted the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club, a local environmental non-profit focusing on wildlife management, to sue Kronke's property in 2013, arguing the trail has historical significance due to past use by an Indigenous community.

A provincial Supreme Court judge agreed in 2018. The paths were then open to the delight of recreational fishers, and public funds were used to re-populate the lakes with rainbow trout.

Kroenke appealed, and a higher court overturned the 2018 ruling on Friday.

While the lakes remain public, the trails leading to them are not, the judges ruled. They also said there was "insufficient evidence" to link the trail to Indigenous heritage.

Now, the only people who can access the lakes are paying guests who stay at the ranch.

"This is a real serious blow to the people of B.C. and Canada," Rick McGowan, who has argued it is unlawful to block access to the lakes, told the CBC.

"What they are saying is that the laws that describe roads lanes and public places, that those laws don't apply [to roads and trails]."

In an interview with The Daily Beast, McGowan added the overruling "swiped out 10 years worth of research and work, all for the benefit of one rich American.”

McGowan told CBC's Radio West that the club intends to file an appeal with the Supreme Court of Canada.

In the ruling, the judges ascertained the game club was not a "public interest litigant," leaving them on the hook for legal expenses Kroenke accrued during his appeal, estimated at between $25,000 and $30,000, the CBC reports.

In 2021, Forbes listed Kroenke's net worth at $8.2 billion, a fortune made off of land development and real estate.

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