A group of local outdoorsmen east of Merritt, B.C. say they're being threatened with criminal charges and accuse the RCMP of taking sides in a dispute over access to lakes on a massive B.C. cattle ranch owned by a U.S. billionaire.
The Douglas Lake Cattle Company is trying to restrict access to more than 30 lakes on a spread the size of Luxembourg.
CBC first reported two years ago on the David-and-Goliath battle between the ranch, and the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club.
But now the fight, reminiscent of an old-fashioned western, is heating up again as the fish and game club risks criminal charges by cutting locks on gates across once-public roads.
“...These locked gates are significant because we are trying to keep them open for future generations of the public to get in here and they keep locking 'em on us and we are going to keep unlocking them until somebody does something about it,” the club's Rick McGowan told CBC .
Ranch officials say the land on their more than half-a-million acres is private. That includes the roads to the popular fishing and hunting grounds near Stoney and Minnie Lakes.
Those who force their way in are getting more than just threats. They're facing criminal charges.
“It's like a great big schoolyard bullying game they are playing. And they figure well, if we charge a few people, kick a few butts, then everybody will stay out of here,” said McGowan.
So far billionaire Stanley Kroenke, the ranch's sports magnate owner, is saying little. Kroenke married into Walmart wealth and earned the nickname “Silent Stan” for his shrewd business deals and general lack of comment.
Not first standoff for historic ranch
Kroenke's historic ranch is no stranger to standoffs.
BC’s first train robber, the famed “gentleman bandit” Bill Miner, who allegedly coined the phrase, "hands up," once hid out at Douglas Ranch back in 1905 before his arrest.
Years later a movie about the saga, The Grey Fox, was filmed in these same dusty foothills.
Ranch Manager Joe Gardner says people who cut locks are trespassing on private ranchland.
“It doesn’t really matter how much money owner Stanley Kroenke has," Gardner told CBC back in 2011. "What matters is our legal right.”
McGowan says he's not broken any laws.
“They are threatening to charge us with public mischief and our point of view is — this is what's illegal," he said. "These are public roads and you have to have a permit to lock a public road. They have no permit."
McGowan and other members of the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club were recently summoned to the Merritt Community Corrections office, where they were shown documents that offered them a compromise.
If they signed the “Adult Alternative Dispute Resolution” agreement it meant they admitted to mischief, agreed to community supervision, but avoided criminal court.
So far, they have all refused and every chance they get, they continue to cut through the locks.
“There is not a chance I am going to do it," said club member Kim Robinson. "If I sign this and say I'm responsible and I did this it can come back and bite me in the ass.”
The RCMP say the men could end up in court.
“This is the exact thing we don't want happening," said RCMP Sergeant Norm Flemming. "Could he be charged for that? Absolutely. [This person is] expressing their frustration and they are going about it in the wrong way.
The property dispute is winding its way through the BC Supreme Court which will consider whether the roads in question, and the land around the lakes, are public or private.
In the meantime, the RCMP say, they will arrest and charge anybody who breaks locks, because the locks are ranch property — whether the road is or not.
So the stand-off may end up in criminal as well as civil court. If so, it won’t be the first time Douglas Lake is the backdrop for a wild western-style showdown.
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