June 2, 2020

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Growth negligence

Chronicle of massive B.C. tree has roots in ecological activism

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/9/2018 (626 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In a province where few trees grow taller than a three-storey house and scrub oak and short-lived aspen are the norm, it’s hard for Manitobans to imagine an ancient tree as tall as a 20-storey building.

Canada’s tall-tree capital on the west coast of Vancouver Island used to have plenty of them. But a relentless and often unrestrained forestry industry has reduced them to only a few. Big Lonely Doug: The Story of One of Canada’s Last Great Trees by Salt Spring Island-born, Toronto-based Harley Rustad is about one of them.

TJ Watt / The Canadian Press files</p><p>Cutline here</p>

TJ Watt / The Canadian Press files

Cutline here

Big Lonely Doug is the second-largest tree in Canada. At 70 metres tall with a circumference of 12 metres, Doug is "dwarfed" only by the Red Creek Fir (74 metres) only 20 kilometres away. It’s lonely because it stands erect and alone in a valley the size of 12 football fields that was clear-cut of all other vegetation. That it’s famous and still standing is a testament to luck and the work of three dedicated forest denizens.

This awe-inspiring Douglas-fir (note the hyphen — it’s not a true fir) still survives because in 2011 it was marked by a green ribbon instead of a neon orange one by forest engineer Dennis Cronin. His job was to indicate which trees were to be cut and which ones would be spared for the logging company that employed him. Ironically, his decision spared the thousand-year-old tree, but left it more vulnerable.

Doug is famous because of the talents and tireless work of two environmental activists. Ken Wu was working for the Western Canada Wilderness Committee and growing tired of being a "serial protester."

So, he began searching for a cause that would make people care about nature. TJ Watt, an adventurous wildlife photographer, included his exquisite photographs of Doug in a portfolio he brought to Wu.

They realized immediately that they had found a worthy cause, an icon and a story. Every cause needs a vivid image, a symbol. Doug became for them a symbol of hope.

Big Lonely Doug is not just the story of three small men and one big tree. It’s also a pocket history of the forests of Vancouver Island and the business and politics of a logging industry grown more rapacious with each new technological invention.

Rustad includes a brief treatise on the ecology of old-growth forests as well as the problems involving ecotourism, resource management and First Nations rights. It’s a thorough account of Doug’s place in the land and its past.

The book will inevitably be compared to The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed by John Vaillant. That’s the story of a Sitka spruce with a genetic mutation that was venerated by the Haida Gwaii people. It benefits from a suspenseful story arc and a crazy villain, things that Rustad’s book lacks.

Big Lonely Doug expands an award-winning essay by Rustad originally published in the Walrus magazine. This makes an important story more available to a wider audience.

But like many essay expansions, it sometimes feels padded out. Though all the elements are woven together with some deftness, it does seem at times to be jumpy, to lack focus and coherence.

Clearly supportive of the work of Wu and the Ancient Forest Alliance he runs, Big Lonely Doug is not a passionate call to arms.

Rustad is not an activist or a man with deep woodland experience; he is a gifted researcher and writer and a valuable enabler whose book is a must-read for anyone interested in ecology.

Gene Walz is saddened that only one per cent of B.C.’s thousand-year-old trees remain.

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