Big Lonely Doug
Written by Harley Rustad
On a cool morning in the winter of 2011, a logger named Dennis Cronin was walking through a stand of old-growth forest near Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island. His job was to survey the land and flag the boundaries for clear-cutting. As he made his way through the forest, Cronin came across a massive Douglas-fir the height of a twenty-storey building. It was one of the largest trees in Canada that if felled and milled could easily fetch more than fifty thousand dollars. Instead of moving on, he reached into his vest pocket for a flagging he rarely used, tore off a strip, and wrapped it around the base of the trunk. Along the length of the ribbon were the words “Leave Tree.”
When the fallers arrived, every wiry cedar, every droopy-topped hemlock, every great fir was cut down and hauled away — all except one. The solitary tree stood quietly in the clear cut until activist and photographer T. J. Watt stumbled upon the Douglas-fir while searching for big trees for the Ancient Forest Alliance, an environmental organization fighting to protect British Columbia's dwindling old-growth forests. The single Douglas-fir exemplified their cause: the grandeur of these trees juxtaposed with their plight. They gave it a name: Big Lonely Doug. The tree would also eventually, and controversially, be turned into the poster child of the Tall Tree Capital of Canada, attracting thousands of tourists every year and garnering the attention of artists, businesses, and organizations who saw new values encased within its bark.
Originally featured as a long-form article in The Walrus that garnered a National Magazine Award (Silver), Big Lonely Doug weaves the ecology of old-growth forests, the legend of the West Coast’s big trees, the turbulence of the logging industry, the fight for preservation, the contention surrounding ecotourism, First Nations land and resource rights, and the fraught future of these ancient forests around the story of a logger who saved one of Canada's last great trees.
HARLEY RUSTAD is an editor at The Walrus magazine. His articles and photography have been published in magazines, newspapers, and online outlets including The Walrus, Outside, the Globe and Mail, Geographical, Reader's Digest, the Guardian, and CNN. He has reported from India, Nepal, Cuba, and across Canada. Born on Salt Spring Island, BC, he now lives in Toronto.