Cover Photo: timfilbert via Flickr; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Where once there stood a family of towering, mighty trees, one solitary giant pierces the sky, surrounded by land, cut clean. You can imagine the chorus of chainsaws, followed by the quake of the Earth, as centuries-old behemoths found the ground, one after another, after another, after another. Surrounded by devastation, this lone survivor stands tall—his green foliage a beacon of life shining amid a barren landscape. Meet Big Lonely Doug. Harley Rustad, journalist and author of Big Lonely Doug: The Story of One of Canada’s Last Great Trees, tells the story of this lonely giant in an article first published in The Walrus.
Photo: timfilbert via Flickr; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
If you’re looking for Big Lonely Doug, you can find him just across the Canadian border, on Vancouver Island: a Douglas fir tree alone on a clear-cut swath of land—once a bountiful forest filled with life, now reduced to a desolate expanse. For the timber industry, this forest wasn’t a treasure trove of life and history. It wasn’t home for crawling critters and wandering wolves alike. It wasn’t an ancient, delicate, interconnected ecosystem. Rather, it was a big old ATM by the name of cutblock number 7190.
Through this lens, Big Lonely Doug’s forest looked like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow thanks to the many behemoths inhabiting the land: western red cedars, Sitka spruces and western hemlocks, to name just a few. That’s not to mention Douglas firs—the crowning glory of this timber jackpot. Douglas firs’ highly workable wood and its aesthetic appearance make it some of the most coveted timber in British Columbia, producing more timber than any other species in North America.
Big Lonely Doug, in particular, offered a pretty penny. He’s nearly the height of a 20-story building at a whopping 66 meters high, four meters wide and 12 meters in circumference. Doug is worth about $60,000, with enough wood to fill four logging trucks. So why does this one giant still stand?
Photo: Thomas Hawk via Flickr; CC BY-NC 2.0
Writing for the Canadian news organization The Walrus, Rustad uncovered the story about how one logger saved Big Lonely Doug from hungry chainsaws. In 2011, Dennis Cronin was tasked with surveying one of Vancouver Island’s last remaining old-growth forests, where some of Canada’s largest trees resided. His purpose: to flag it for clear-cutting. For Cronin, it was just another day on the job… until he wandered upon Doug. This massive spectacle enraptured Cronin enough to compel him to place a green ribbon around one root with two simple, yet world-altering, words: “Leave Tree.”
He didn’t know it then, but Cronin had just created a symbol for conservationists and environmentalists for generations to come. Perhaps the sheer size of the tree inspired Cronin to make such a bold move, but I like to think that Cronin saw beyond the dollar signs and recognized the majesty of this one-of-a-kind specimen. With almost 1,000 years under his bark, Big Lonely Doug is an ecosystem in his own right. In his highest branches, life has been developing for centuries in the forms of delicate moss, lichen and fungi. And back when thousands of other trees shared the land, Big Doug’s height made him a vital player in the nutrient cycle of the forest. As Rustad wrote for The Walrus: "The Douglas firs in particular play a key role, transferring nutrients from their great heights to smaller saplings below through mycorrhizal fungi that link together the roots of various species in an underground network."
More than providing ecosystem services and being an ecosystem of his own, Doug—just like all mature and old-growth trees—holds vast amounts of carbon. The older a tree, the more carbon it can store, and a thousand years’ worth of carbon resides within Doug’s foot-thick corky bark. Cutting this tree down would mean releasing most of that carbon back into the atmosphere and losing a valuable carbon sink. Unfortunately, such is the reality for too many of our nation’s oldest trees.
Both ancient trees, like Doug, and younger yet still mature trees—at least 70 or 80 years old—face devastation from relentless logging. These older trees constitute our old-growth forests, one of our best weapons against the climate crisis. The trees and soil of old-growth forests not only sequester tons of carbon but also provide critical habitat for a diverse array of species. Growing undisturbed over hundreds of years, these forests have been able to develop unique, complex and delicate ecosystems.
Photo: Viv Lynch via Flickr; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The truth is, no matter how valuable a tree’s timber may be, our trees are worth more when they are left standing. Big Lonely Doug may rack in tens of thousands of dollars if hacked down, but alive and flourishing, he is priceless.
The same is true for so many of our trees—particularly mature ones, which have the greatest potential to constitute future generations of old-growth forests. With 95% of old-growth forests gone in the Western U.S. and more than 99% eradicated in the East, it’s critical that we preserve mature trees now.
Saved by the unlikely actions of a humble logger, Big Lonely Doug sends one resounding message: let trees grow. When we do leave trees and forests to their own devices, the results benefit us all. Join us in calling on the Biden administration to end the logging of mature and old-growth forests because these trees are our future.
Rustad, Harley, “Big Lonely Doug.” The Walrus, The Walrus, 12 Nov. 2021, https://thewalrus.ca/big-lonely-doug/. Accessed 4 Apr. 2022.