On March 30, 2020 a billionaire from the United States will appeal a decision that allows Canadians free access to crown property on backroads and the outdoors. The plaintiff is billionaire Stan Kroenke who owns among other things, the Los Angeles Rams, Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche and the English Premier League soccer club Arsenal. The defendants? You and everyone you know.
Kroenke also owns the Douglas Lake Ranch, a vast stretch of land twice the size of metro Vancouver. Within those lands are lakes that are public property. But Kroenke had blocked access to those lakes for the general public. B.C. Supreme Court Justice Joel Groves ruled, however, that the American billionaire can’t restrict access to the general public through his land to the crown-owned areas.
The implications are immense for British Columbians, not the least of which are Vancouver Islanders who face “No Trespassing” signs and locked gates on their former recreation areas.
In his excellent piece in The Province newspaper, reporter Douglas Todd says Groves’ ruling “is a boon to Canadians who love the outdoors and seek rightful access to wild places.”
It is part of a movement called the Right to Roam. Two years ago B.C. Green Leader Andrew Weaver put forward a private member’s bill, M223: The Right to Roam Act. It was inspired by the Douglas Lake Ranch case. The bill was to make nature open to all, not just the privileged few. The bill died on the floor, which means weak-kneed politicians allowed those privileged few to wipe their shoes on the backs of regular British Columbians. Again.
In Nova Scotia, that province has long enshrined a person’s right to cross private, uncultivated land and walk the banks of rivers and lakes to fish.
Maybe for too long British Columbians have seen the “No Trespassing” signs or “Private Beach” signs, cussed a bit and then moved on to another spot because there were lots of them. Not so much anymore. The vast lands, fishing, hiking and camping opportunities we as recreationalists have enjoyed for years, are getting swallowed up.
We are living in present Europe’s past – when Europe had healthy forests, rivers and lakes. They disappeared quickly and their disappearance inspired some to move to where there were still healthy forests, rivers and lakes. Like, um, North America.
So they, we, came. The country was so big and, to some narrow-minded individuals, still is. It’s so big that the same encroachments that threatened wild spaces in past Europe, are met with patient disregard here. The land is so big. There are other forests and other rivers and other lakes. But there will come a time when we actually have to follow Europe and other countries in securing our basic rights to the outdoors which we allow to shrink because we think it’s so big. As Todd writes: “The freedom to roam is well advanced in Scotland, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Austria, Switzerland and other nations, where it’s possible to walk pastoral routes that wend their way through a blend of public and private land for hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometres.”
Yet here in British Columbia, specifically in the Douglas Lake Ranch case, those rights were denied until 2019 when Court Justice Groves handed down his decision. The Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club and one remarkable man called Rick McGowan led the charge. As Todd wrote, McGowan was the gunpowder in the rifle. “McGowan, 67, spent much of his career with the B.C. Highways Ministry mapping every metre of every road and right-of-way running through the stunning rolling hills southeast of Merritt.”
On Vancouver Island things are different. Some logging roads that access lakes and rivers are closed for various reasons, not the least of which to protect against the idiots who damage property and leave garbage all over the place. But punishing the few at the expense of the many, is not right. And then we come down to what is right. And what is a right. For example, do you think you should be denied a camping spot for your long weekend where you can catch a few fish and relax, all because a rich foreigner made millions off cutting down most the trees and closed the access road used to do it? Eventually our river and lake accesses will cease to exist. Even our ocean destinations for harvesting shellfish and enjoying a secluded beach will be gone. We will be Europe all over again.
But the Right to Roam can put a stop that bleeding.
If you don’t think things are dire, perhaps you haven’t ventured out lately or as much as you used to. I’m including a quote from a young father with children who love to fish. His name is withheld to protect his identity..
“There is, I believe, a private campground on the backside of Upper Quinsam Lake owned by a logging company. Decks, docks, treehouses, etc.. There used to be more private ones but some have been made into pay sites with a host. Access to most free/first-come, first-serve sites has been restricted or completely blocked with most others displaying signs stating day use only/no overnight camping. The entire Upper Campbell Lake and Beavertail Lake being examples. Also, every place I’ve tried to access from Nanoose south is gated. There are a couple exceptions that allow weekend access within specific hours with no overnight. One of which [Nanaimo Lakes] charges a fee to pass the gate. You cannot even bring your kids to a lake for a hot dog roast anymore. Even in the middle of winter. I hear this is going to be implemented in our [Campbell River] neck of the woods as well in the near future. Last summer we did a tour around the complete Cowichan Lake, which is huge. There is one place on the entire lake with free access that was chock full. We tried to stop in at a campsite to let the kids go for a quick swim and got kicked out because we hadn’t paid and weren’t camping. It’s a mess out there! All back roads up Campbell River way have signs saying ‘Private Property. No Trespassing.’ Even day-use access roads have these. All of them. Nobody pays it any attention but they’re there.”
To quote Todd’s story, “The head of the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre, Calvin Sandborn, is one of many leaders of a loose-knit coalition determined to make it possible for citizens to experience nature by venturing onto private land. “Sandborn and law students Graham Litman and Matt Hulse have created a site which looks at some of B.C.’s most lively action fronts.”
The B.C. Wildlife Federation, the B.C. Federation of Fly Fishers ,and B.C. Outdoor Recreation Council have prepared positions on the right to roam. Consider a membership to these organizations. They aren’t expensive. For a few dollars you can add your voice to an organization that fights against denying public access to existing and future recreational sites.
Keep your ears open to the March court date. That’s when your Right to Roam is confirmed, or you start planning to camp in your own backyard.