Cover photo: timfilbert via Flickr; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Where once stood a family of towering and mighty trees, a lone giant pierces the sky, surrounded by clear-cut land. You can imagine the chorus of chainsaws, followed by the earthquake, as age-old behemoths found the ground, one after another, one after another, one after another. Surrounded by devastation, this lone survivor stands tall, its green foliage a beacon of life shining amidst an arid landscape. Meet Big Lonely Doug.
Photo: timfilbert via Flickr; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
You can find it just across the Canadian border on Vancouver Island: a lone Douglas fir on a clear-cut strip of land – once a lush forest filled with life, now reduced to a desolate expanse. For the timber industry, this forest was not a treasure trove of life and history. It was not the home of crawling critters and wandering wolves. It was not an ancient, delicate, interconnected ecosystem. Rather, it was a large ATM by the name of cutting block 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 that inhabited the land: western red cedars, Sitka spruces, and western hemlocks, to name a few. Not to mention the Douglas firs, the crowning glory of this large lot of wood. The dimensionally stable wood of Douglas firs does not twist or warp when seasoned, and its pronounced grain and warm color make it one of the most coveted woods in British Columbia, yielding more lumber than any other species in North America.
Big Lonely Doug, in particular, offered a pretty penny. It is almost the height of a 20-story building and measures 66 meters high, four meters wide and 12 meters in circumference. Dougis is worth around $60,000, with enough wood to fill four logging trucks. So why is this giant still standing?
Photo: Thomas Hawk via Flickr; CC BY-NC 2.0
Logging companies may have decimated the forest, but ironically, a logger saved Big Lonely Doug from hungry chainsaws. In 2011, Dennis Cronon was commissioned to survey one of the last old-growth forests on Vancouver Island, where some of Canada’s tallest trees once resided. His goal: to mark him for the clear cut. Walking around the age-old trees, Cronon did his duty, dooming one of Vancouver’s last old growth stands to logging. For Cronon, it was just another day at work…until he bumped into Doug. This massive spectacle captivated Cronon enough to compel him to place a green ribbon around a root with two simple, yet world-changing words: “Leave the tree”.
Little did he know it then, but Cronon had just created a symbol for conservationists and environmentalists for generations to come. Perhaps the sheer size of the tree inspired Cronon to make such a bold move, but I like to think Cronon saw past the dollar signs and recognized the majesty of this one-of-a-kind specimen. With nearly 1,000 years under its bark, Big Lonely Doug is an ecosystem in its own right. In its highest branches, life has been developing for centuries in the form of delicate mosses, lichens and fungi. And back when thousands of other trees shared the land, Big Doug’s size made him a key player in the forest’s nutrient cycle. Gathering sunlight above the foliage-rich canopy, this tree could transfer essential nutrients to smaller saplings below through mycorrhizal fungi, which form the underground network that connects various species via their roots through the whole forest.
In addition to providing ecosystem services and being its own ecosystem, Doug, like all mature and old trees, contains large amounts of carbon. The older a tree, the more carbon it can store, and a thousand years’ worth of carbon resides in Doug’s foot-thick corky bark. Cutting down that tree would release most of that carbon back into the atmosphere and lose a valuable carbon sink. Sadly, this is the reality for too many of our nation’s oldest trees.
Old trees, like Doug, and younger but still mature trees – at least 70 or 80 years old – are being devastated by relentless logging. These older trees are our old-growth forests, one of our best weapons against the climate crisis. The trees and soil of ancient forests not only sequester tons of carbon, but also provide essential habitat for a wide range of species. Growing undisturbed for hundreds of years, these forests have been able to develop unique, complex and delicate ecosystems. It has been reported that 18,000 invertebrates can be found under a single pair of boot prints in these ancient forests.
Photo: Viv Lynch on Flickr; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The truth is, no matter how valuable a tree’s wood is, our trees are worth more when left standing. Big Lonely Doug can fetch tens of thousands of dollars if hacked, but alive and thriving, he’s priceless.
The same is true for many of our trees, especially mature trees, which have the greatest potential to form future generations of old-growth forests. With 95% of old-growth forests gone in the western United States and over 99% eradicated in the east, it’s critical that we preserve mature trees now.
Saved by the unlikely actions of a lowly lumberjack, Big Lonely Doug sends a resounding message: let the trees grow. When we leave trees and forests to their own devices, the results benefit everyone. Join us in calling on the Biden administration to end the logging of mature and old-growth forests, because these trees are our future.