A Supreme Court judge ruled last week that the Douglas Trail is a highway.
Justice Loryl D. Russell ruled in her Feb. 7 decision that the route, also known as the Highline Road, meets the definition of a public road. The 24-kilometre Douglas Trail links Seton Portage to D'arcy.
"I find there is sufficient evidence to show that the Douglas Trail Road has a lengthy history of use by a variety of different groups, including BC Hydro and BC Rail, loggers, reserve residents, other local residents, the public and tourists," Justice Russell said in her written decision. "This travel is not casual the road is an essential access route to nearby communities for many local residents."
The ruling means the provincial government will now be responsible for maintaining the road and bringing it up to provincial standards.
Russell's decision is a victory for Wolfgang Skutnik, who represented himself in filing the court petition to have the road declared a public highway, and for others who lobbied for decades to have the route declared a public road. In her decision, Justice Russell praised Skutnik's "diligent and selfless efforts to ensure his community has safe, public road access and to remove the burden of road maintenance that has fallen to his community."
Skutnik told the News he was "excited" by the judge's decision.
"It's been quite a journey," said Skutnik. "It was all based on law and the evidence was there for the ruling. That was the whole reason I continued with this for eight years that it was based on law, on Section 42 of the Transportation Act, and I felt that, logically, this would be the outcome if it came to court."
In her decision, the judge found that the province, on various occasions dating back to the late 1960s, had provided "significant" public funding to maintain the road, enough so that it met the province's definition of a public highway.
She noted that in 1968, Premier W.A. C. Bennett made $250,000 available for the D'arcy-Lillooet Road.
She also noted that $20,000 was spent by the Department of Highways in 1970 to reconstruct Portage Bridge, while an April 2005 Ministry of Transportation document agreed to spend $42,000 per year for five years for road maintenance on the Highline Road.
The St'at'imc Chiefs Council (SCC) opposed Skutnik's petition, arguing there was insufficient evidence to prove the road met the definition of a provincial public highway. The chiefs argued that public money spent on the road after 1945 was casual and trifling. The SCC also expressed concern that upgrading the road to highway standard could interfere with traditional First Nations use and access to the land.
The St'at'imc Chiefs also claimed it would be unconstitutional for the provincial government to declare the Douglas Trail a highway without first consulting the SCC.
Justice Russell disagreed with the SCC, saying the Chiefs Council "does not have standing to raise the issue of its cultural grievances with the Crown on this petition. Accordingly, I decline to consider the duty to consult and constitutionality as issues."
An SCC spokesperson told the News Feb. 8 that the Council had not had an opportunity to review the legal summary of the case, but was expected to discuss the matter yesterday, Feb. 12. A statement from the SCC is expected later this week.
Justice Russell said Skutnik was entitled to claim his court costs from the SCC.
Skutnik said questions of access and consultation are "really between the St'at'imc and the province," adding, "I expect that anything that's done out there from this day forward will have to be negotiated. That's why they're on record and it's a good thing they're on record."
He said he anticipated the next stage in the process would focus on bringing the road up to a safe standard for travelers.