Harley Rustad is a features editor at The Walrus and author of Big Lonely Doug: The Story of One of Canada's Last Great Trees.
In 2011, a logger named Dennis Cronin stood under one of the largest trees in Canada and said no. He wrapped green ribbon around the Douglas fir’s nearly 12-metre circumference and saved it from being cut down. After the forest around it was gone, and images of a single enormous tree left standing on its own in the middle of a clear-cut began to be circulated, the tree, located just outside Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island, became a symbol for the dwindling old-growth forests in British Columbia.
It has been 25 years since the War in the Woods – the battle between loggers and environmental activists over some of Vancouver Island’s most valuable forests that raged and sparked the creation of Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park. But the fight to protect these skyscraper trees and lush groves has never faded; the cutting of old-growth forests continues at a rate of three-square metres per second, according to Sierra Club BC, and the tension is ongoing. After more than a century of commercial logging on Vancouver Island, the most productive (and therefore most valuable) forests – where consequently the largest trees grow – now cover only 6.4 per cent of the island. The environmental non-profit stated that these old-growth forests “are becoming as rare as white rhinos.”
Many British Columbians – and Canadians across the country – place our nature and our access to nature in high regard. Our provincial and national parks are beacons for the outdoorsy and active, or those who simply seek a quiet respite from city or town. The trope that we fall in to, however, is seeing our park spaces as untouched slices of wild, sites for immersion into pure nature. Why can’t a park be more than that? Why can’t one represent the past, present and future of a particular landscape – showing visitors the verdant life as well as the dark scars? Parks are lovely to hike through and camp in, but, apart from the odd educational placard, they are rarely provocative and challenging in their own right. What if the most compelling place to experience British Columbia’s forests wasn’t simply an intact grove of towering trees? The province’s next flagship protected area could instead provide it all – with a single, 20-storey tall tree at its heart.
This new park would begin at a bridge over the Gordon River, where visitors would park and walk across. They would look down to the thundering blue waters that carve through a canyon on its way to the Pacific Ocean. The road would lead uphill, past plantations of second-growth forest in various stages of regrowth: some seedlings, some the size of Christmas trees, some fully grown and ready to be cut. In the distance would be Edinburgh Mountain, one of the largest unprotected continuous tracts of old-growth forest on Vancouver Island, at the base of which includes what environmental activists have dubbed Eden Grove. The park would encompass both Eden Grove and cutblock 7190, the clear-cut that holds Big Lonely Doug.
It would offer a glimpse not only into Vancouver Island’s natural past but allow visitors to see every stage of forest life and every stage of the region’s forest history. There would be a grove of old growth as pristine and grand as any found in the watersheds of Carmanah or Walbran or Clayoquot, and there would be a river where salmon spawn, hallow cedars where bears den and high branches where endangered goshawks roost. And there would be Big Lonely Doug, one of the country’s largest trees that was saved by a logger. It would be the past, present, and future of timber and forests on Vancouver Island contained in one location, just a half-hour’s drive from Port Renfrew, the Tall Tree Capital of Canada, where ecotourism is booming. A park around Big Lonely Doug would include a prime example of Pacific temperate rain forest; the continued presence of Indigenous peoples in these landscapes; the history of logging on the island and its role in building and supporting communities; the changing ecology; and ways forward for supporting both economies as well as environments.
Big Lonely Doug currently stands as a “recreational reserve,” a designation under the Forest and Range Protection Act that recognized a special value beyond a pure resource. If it were to be turned into a “recreation site” it would enjoy official promotion and marketing from the provincial government. But to turn Big Lonely Doug, its clear-cut and its neighbouring stands of old growth and regenerating forest into a provincial park would be to recognize that a park can act as a place of recreation as well as education.
There is urgency here, too. The stands of old growth near Big Lonely Doug have recently fallen under the radar of Teal Jones, the timber company that owns the cutting rights for the area around Port Renfrew. I visited the tree recently and saw that the company had recently repaired the principal bridge over the Gordon River, as well as a number of secondary bridges over creeks, signalling that Teal Jones has returned to cut in that area. The old-growth forest next door to Big Lonely Doug – Eden Grove – could fall soon.
For a timber company such as Teal Jones, which holds the lease on Eden Grove, the creation of a park would mean stepping back from a few dozen hectares. There would be boardwalks and paths, through both clear-cut and forest, and guides from the Pacheedaht First Nation leading visitors to the area’s culturally modified trees – trees that are marked with the historical presence of Indigenous peoples. Within the grove, keen eyes of visitors would be able to spot Dennis Cronin’s orange, pink and red logging ribbons fluttering from the tree branches as reminders of what could have been. But, also, they would be a reminder of how important timber has been for Port Renfrew, Vancouver Island and British Columbia – for families and communities.
The park could be built by every party that has pulled at the limbs of these forests: loggers maintaining the bridge and road, environmental activists maintaining the boardwalks and trails, members of the Pacheedaht maintaining the land, local businesses maintaining the marketing and the provincial government financially supporting the site. It would be a destination not fought over and won amid tension and blockade and anger, but established and managed by every party that has historically held conflicting interests. It would represent the future of Vancouver Island’s old-growth forests: in finding co-operation and creative solutions to managing a resource.
Our parks could be more than places of escape. That is the past. We need to confront the full spectrum of what this ecosystem looks like now. As we enter an age of profound human impact on our environments, we first and foremost need to see the changes. We need to recognize what we’ve done if we have any chance of addressing our what’s to come.
To create a provincial park with Big Lonely Doug at its epicentre, would signal a shift in how we view our protected spaces and how collaborative their creation could be. It would be built not out of the ashes of conflict between left and right, environmentalist and logger, but out of collective efforts to reveal a state of the union of British Columbia’s natural present.