Ministry of Transportation says locked Pennask Lake Road is public
The fight for access to fishing waters surrounded by the Douglas Lake Ranch may be easier for a Merritt group now that the Ministry of Transportation deemed Pennask Lake Road public.
The Ministry has been tight-lipped and seemingly unsure about the road’s designation, but after the Merritt Herald filed a Freedom of Information Request on July 31, the Ministry responded on Aug. 21 saying the road is public.
But the Ministry still hasn’t recognized the status of a locked stretch of the road, said Rick McGowan, who has spearheaded the fight for public access since the mid-90s when the Douglas Lake Cattle Co. blocked access to Stoney Lake Road.
“The portion of the road that they locked, they’ve dug up and planted a hay field all over it, and they’ve dumped logs in a few spots to stop us from going in there,” said McGowan, a retired provincial highways engineer who worked on the road. “There is more information to say that this portion is a public road than any [darn] road in British Columbia.”
He said the Ministry is claiming Stoney Lake Road doesn’t exist so that they don’t have to challenge the many corporations throughout the province that are blocking public access to Crown roads.
“This is just one of many Crown roads that the public is blocked out of,” McGowan said. “We just took this road as an example because we have so much information to say that it is public.”
The debate has escalated since local and national media watchdogs and the public have approached the Ministry with pointed questions over the last several months.
According to the Ministry, Stoney Lake Road, which is the source of much confusion, has since been replaced by Pennask Lake Road, the Ministry stated after reviewing documents dating back to the 1880s.
“Ministry staff and legal counsel from the attorney general have concluded a review of records on Stoney Lake Road ... that determined no substantive legal grounds to pursue public road status,” the spokesperson said in an email, noting Stoney was replaced by Pennask in 1975. “Pennask Lake Road [however] is a public road under the jurisdiction of the Ministry...”
A file included in the response said the Ministry spent $22,500 on Pennask Lake Road between 1949 and 1969.
Additional work was completed at the time, but no record of a dollar amount was disclosed.
The ministry hasn’t made it easy to find information about the road’s status.
After continuously reaching dead ends leading up to the Information Request, the Herald contacted the office of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Minister Steve Thomson in August.
The Ministry of Transportation returned the call instead, though the same ministry had not yet responded to a Freedom of Information Request.
A ministry spokeswoman said the file was diverted from the Ministry of Forests to her desk. Two weeks have passed as of press time Monday and the ministry hasn’t followed up on the interview request to comment on what will be done now that the road is deemed public.
Thomson, who a source from the B.C. government said has dealt regularly with road access dilemmas, also hasn’t returned the Herald’s phone calls.
Fraser-Nicola NDP MLA Harry Lali, who served as the Minister of Highways from 1998 to 2001, said he doesn’t blame the bureaucrats.
“There is a huge fear in ministries and government agencies and boards of this government because of their gag orders,” he said. “I know people in the ministries who are afraid to come out publicly and say anything because there is no protection for them in terms of whistle-blower legislation.”
He said the Liberal government is too friendly with corporations and landowners.
“The government isn’t willing to take them on, for political reasons,” he said.
The current government will set up safeguards to protect important information about the roads, as a precaution in case the NDP is elected during the next provincial election on May 14, he said.
Access to Minnie Lake is just one example of the many access rights throughout the province that are blocked, Lali said.
Douglas Lake Cattle Co. Ranch Manager Joe Gardner didn’t return phone calls by press time, but he is on record as saying the roads existing after 1884 didn’t provide access to the lakes. He also said that ranch management won’t charge people for “trespassing” because it’s such a small fine — $115.