THIS MONTH’S B.C. Supreme Court decision that the public cannot access some Merritt area public lakes that are accessed through private land has far reaching impacts for all people who enjoy using the outdoors.
The decision is not simply about the public Minnie Lake and Stoney Lake, located on the privately held Douglas Lake Cattle Company. The decision is not simply the fight between a fish and game club and a billionaire ranch owner. More broadly there are possible long-term impacts for individuals who want to access the outdoors for recreation.
The majority of British Columbia is Crown Land, meaning, for the most part, the public has access to it for recreational purposes. Sometimes it seems there is so much available, but over time, more and more access has been taken away.
It is interesting to see how New Zealand approached the problem of access to both private and public lands by creating the New Zealand Walking Access Commission. This commission’s purpose is to work to create and maintain trails for walkers, hikers, bicyclists and horse riders.
The commission works to create and maintain accesses on both public and private lands. New Zealand understands that often access to public lands requires access through private property.
It is important to note that this commission is a Crown entity. That is, the New Zealand government wants to encourage and support access to the outdoors, and actively works to ensure access is available.
Having public access established and maintained provided greater good for the public. They understand that importance of government involvement to ensure access is physically maintained, and legally guaranteed.
Public access includes maintaining trails and access roads.
In B.C., there has been a long tradition of not maintaining public access. Drive along Shuswap Lake and one would be hard pressed to find the multiple public access points to the lake. Tucked between houses, the access points are left to overgrow, or are simply taken over by adjacent land owners. While Shuswap Lake is public, access is effectively cut off because the public access points are not maintained.
At Kamloops Lake, at Tranquille on the Lake, the public access point is a deeply rutted road hazardous for cars with low clearance. Hundreds went there this weekend to enjoy family time together walking the beach, having campfires and collecting beach stones.
As beautiful as Kamloops Lake is, the extremely rutted road means many people cannot access the lake because they don’t have a 4×4 or other suitable vehicle to drive down the access road.
Access also means providing the most basic of services. All winter, there were 10, 20, 30 or more vehicles parked at Inks Lake off of Lac Le Jeune Road. Further up, there were equal numbers at the old Winter Games trails, and the same number at McConnell Lake. This winter, hundreds, if not thousands, used the lakes and trails at these three points to hike, snowshoe, cross country ski and ice skate.
Despite high numbers using these three locations, only one of the three, McConnell Lake, has an outhouse. Even then, the sign on the outhouse states that it is not maintained from fall until spring (the outhouse also has another sign telling people that urinating and defecating in the woods is forbidden, making one wonder if there is anything one can do).
The B.C. Supreme Court decision that a private landowner can bar the public from traversing their private land to access public lakes illuminates the larger issue in B.C. of prioritizing establishing rights of access to trails.
It shouldn’t be small fish and games clubs taking on billionaires that establish these rights. Rather, as in New Zealand, the provincial government needs to take responsibility. The B.C. government needs to promote, establish and maintain access to trails on both public and private lands, both legally and physically.
Otherwise, we will lose the opportunity to enjoy the province as access point after access point disappears. Lake by lake, trail by trail, we will all lose access to the places we love to explore.
Nancy Bepple is a former City councillor of Kamloops with a strong interest in community building projects.