There’s a tree in Canada that’s so famous that it now has its own biography, Big Lonely Doug (2018) by Harlan Rustad:
It’s a gigantic Douglas fir, ~67 m (220′) tall and 4 m across at the base. It’s one of the tallest trees in Canada, and is probably a thousand years old.
But that’s not why it’s famous. There are taller firs (the 100 m Doermer Fir in Oregon) and larger ones (the 350 m³ Red Creek Fir). There are even trees that tall in distant locales – there’s a 69 m fir in New Zealand that’s a mere 160 years old. That country really is the land of the Ents.
No, it’s famous because of the whim of a forest engineer. In 2011 Dennis Cronin was mapping a section of forest near Port Renfrew. That’s on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island, only about 40 miles from Victoria, the provincial capital. He was preparing a section for logging, marking where the access roads should go, and where the boundaries of the clearcut should be. Logging companies are not allowed to cut within 50 m of a waterway for fear of silting them up and harming the salmon. They’re also not allowed to cut Culturally Modified Trees, ones that First Nation people have cut into for timber or fibers. Some of the CMTs are hundreds of years old, and First Nations now have the lawyers to protect them.
While hiking through the dense undergrowth, Cronin came upon a trunk of enormous girth. It disappeared up into the canopy. He rather liked it, and so put a green Leave Tree ribbon around it. Ten months later the Teal Jones lumber company came through. They clearcut the 12 hectare in plot in a couple of weeks, leaving Big Lonely Doug standing there all by itself. All the rest of the timber was taken by truck to Nanaimo on the eastern coast, then floated down to a mill on the mainland.
For once, people could see the actual scale of these trees. They’re the size of skyscrapers, but are normally hidden among lots of others. It has now become a tourist destination. Lumbering is fading at Port Renfrew, and they’re now realizing that eco-tourism is far more profitable. Local environmental groups, such as the Ancient Forest Alliance, have been pushing this for years. It’s not enough to just chide people for destroying natural beauty – you have to give them something else to do. They’re the ones who named Big Lonely Doug, and they’ve made it an example of what logging is doing to the island. They’ve been able to save a few small parcels, such as Avatar Grove, named for the eco-conscious James Cameron movie:
But the overall trend is clear – this island will be razed to the ground. About 100,000 hectares are cleared a year, and the best old growth is long gone. Douglas fir makes excellent timber, worth about $100 per cubic meter. Big Doug itself would be worth about $30,000. The timber companies are competing with much more desperate regions in Siberia and Indonesia and the Amazon, and so are trying to get every nickel out while they can.
Logging has long been a mainstay of British Columbia. My uncle worked in the mountains and mills here before it was all automated. My father hiked these very mountains as a teenager in the 1940s doing seedling re-planting as a summer job. It was hard work because the brush is thick and the slopes are steep, but it got him out of the city. It jibed with the green thumb and love of nature that he had his whole life. That experience is going away – it’ll all be tiny fragments of parks like the above and tree farms.
Doug itself will probably make it. It’s a bit more exposed to windstorms now, but it has survived many hurricanes over the last millennium. It even survived an estimated magnitude 9 earthquake that shook Vancouver Island in 1700, which is known because it wiped out a village nearby, and its tsunami hit Japan. Doug’s root system is enormous, and it is now a bit more isolated from insects. It has been declared a provincial recreational area, which doesn’t prevent logging, but does make the paperwork a lot harder.
But trees are not isolated individuals. We now know that they communicate with each other via sap and electrical signals passed through fine networks of fungi in the soil, and through pheromones and other gases in the air. They appear to take collective action to help injured members, and to ward off pests. But they live at such a slow pace, and the fungi and aerosol signals are so hard for us to detect, that we don’t perceive this alien civilization in our midst. It’ll come back once we either go away or realize we must leave them alone. In the meantime Big Lonely Doug shows us what we’re losing.