Hug a Tree, Hug a Building

On a cool, winter morning in 2011, in a dense, old-growth forest near Port Renfrew on southwest Vancouver Island, 48-year-old logger Dennis Cronin tied a green ribbon around a massive Douglas fir.

Some 36 years earlier and 80 km to the east, Victoria’s Mayor Peter Pollen and his Council had passed a resolution to designate the majestic Empress Hotel as a heritage property. Although separated by more than a generation, these two events – Cronin’s ribbon and Pollen’s resolution – were comparable in many ways. Both provided protection for a valued object. Both diverted the tide of change. Both encouraged people to reflect on what they treasure. Cronin’s deed was an act of environmental conservation, Pollen’s of architectural conservation. A look at the two events and their contexts reveals parallels and contrasts between saving our built heritage and our natural heritage.

Cronin was a veteran forest engineer. He was born in Burns Lake, in the heart of northern BC’s logging country. Cronin’s employer was the Vancouver-based lumber company, Teal Jones, a family-owned firm started by Jack Jones in 1946. Jones built a shingle mill on Lulu Island, near the mouth of the Fraser River, after his return from the Second World War. Since then, Teal Jones has grown to employ more than 1,000 people.

Cronin’s job was to scout the forests and identify stands of timber that were ripe for being cut down and milled into lumber. He almost always marked trees with orange, pink, or red ribbons, which indicated timber blocks and trees to be cut. Green ribbons, which Cronin rarely took out of his kit, were inscribed in capital letters: ‘Leave Tree’. They usually marked defective trees with little or no commercial value. Green indicated that a tree should be spared from cutting.

The circumference at the base of the Douglas fir that Cronin marked with a green ribbon was an astounding 12 meters. The behemoth reached some 66 meters into the sky. Cronin estimated it to be about a millennium old. It would have sprouted around the time that Norseman Lief Erikson, the first European to visit the New World, landed on the coast of Newfoundland.

Cronin’s instincts told him that it would be wrong to cut the tree, even though it would yield more than $50,000 if milled into planks and posts. The titan ‘towered above the forest,’ Cronin recalled. ‘He stuck out like a sore thumb.’ The cutters who followed Cronin into the grove respected his decision. Before long, the huge Douglas fir was left to stand entirely on its own in a barren clear-cut. Its green crown was visible for miles around. When asked why he had saved the tree, Cronin simply responded, ‘Because I liked it.’

The news circulated quickly. Dennis Cronin became a folk hero or a folk villain, depending on one’s point of view. His friend Joe Simpson offered a balanced view: ‘These guys that work in the lumber industry see all sorts of trees, but Dennis obviously recognized this one as a very, very special tree that should never be cut down.’ Journalist Harley Rustad has documented the story well in his captivating book, Big Lonely Doug.


‘Big lonely Doug’ stands tall in a clear-cut on southwestern Vancouver Island. (Photo: Ancient Forest Alliance)


The Douglas fir (pseudotsuga menziesii), known south of the border as Oregon pine, grows abundantly throughout the Pacific northwest. ‘Pseudotsuga’ refers to its resemblance to the tsuga, better known as hemlock, which is also a member of the pine family. The Douglas fir, however, is neither a fir nor a hemlock. It is a separate variety of coniferous evergreen. The cones hang downward, whereas those of the true fir stand upright. The coastal variety of Douglas fir is the largest of the group, sometimes growing more than 100 metres high.

The ‘Douglas’ in its name refers to David Douglas, an adrenalin-fuelled Scottish botanist who visited America three times for the Royal Horticultural Society of London. A committed outdoorsman, Douglas has been called the first mountaineer in North America. On his first trip, in 1825, he marvelled at the tree that would bear his name. Science writers David Suzuki and Wayne Grady tell us that Douglas described the tree as being ‘remarkably tall, unusually straight.’ He collected some of its cones. The tree’s Latin name honours Dr. Archibald Menzies, a Scottish physician who was also a botanist and a sometime rival of Douglas. Menzies had documented the tree when he visited Vancouver Island aboard Captain George Vancouver’s Discovery, in 1792. He was the first to report it to the Horticultural Society.

While the Douglas fir can live a thousand years or more, some conifers enjoy even longer lives. The bristlecone pine (aptly named pinus longaeva), which grows in the White Mountains of Eastern California, is one such ancient tree. The oldest to be identified, nicknamed ‘Methuselah’, has matured for an estimated 4,850 years. Yews (taxus baccata) also live thousands of years. The Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, Scotland, is believed to be between 2,000 and 3,000 years old. Big Lonely Doug is a gangly adolescent by comparison.

Organizations such as the Ancient Forest Alliance (AFA) in BC demonstrate their care for old trees with research and activism. Advocate Ken Wu and others formed the AFA in 2010 ‘to find and document the remaining exceptionally large trees and intact stands,’ and to work ‘to ensure their protection.’ Their message is simple: industry and government should do something to protect special trees. Wu hired photographer T.J. Watt to seek out some good examples. Watt had gained respect in the naturalist community for locating a remarkable old-growth forest near Port Renfrew. The AFA dubbed it ‘Avatar Grove’, after the James Cameron sci-fi film. It also branded one old-growth western red cedar sporting a large burl as ‘Canada’s gnarliest tree’. Jeff Jones, chief of the local Pacheedaht First Nation, on whose unceded territory the trees stand, helped to make Avatar Grove and its difficult terrain accessible to the public by fashioning a walkway from cedar planks. Jones recruited members of his band to serve as guides. Adventurous souls from the general public could now enter an ancient rainforest, learn amazing things about it, and marvel at the sight.


A cedar walkway made by the Pacheedaht First Nation skirts ‘Canada’s gnarliest tree’ in Avatar Grove. (Photo: T.J. Watt, Ancient Forest Alliance)


The Pacheedaht found that they had boxed themselves into a corner. The nation had long depended on logging for its livelihood, yet was now advocating for keeping the most lucrative trees standing and making them tourist attractions. Tensions soon arose among members of the band and with the activists. Separate struggles continued between forest advocates and the forest industry. Avatar Grove became yet another battleground in the ongoing conflict between the conservation and development communities. The BC government finally protected Avatar Grove in 2012, an important victory for the AFA, who campaigned in partnership with the Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce.

Not far from Avatar Grove, on a trek into the woods in 2012, Watt spied the tree that came to be known as Big Lonely Doug. Teal Jones had cleared the surrounding trees. Watt rushed to show Wu a photograph. The campaign to save the solitary survivor had begun. The AFA’s message was simple: industry and government should do something to protect special trees.

A parallel incident involving a solitary old tree had occurred on Haida Gwaii, the island group off the north coast of BC, in January 1997. As John Vaillant relates in The Golden Spruce, logger Grant Hadwin came upon a Sitka spruce with a genetic mutation that produced golden needles. It lacked 80 per cent of its normal chlorophyll, somewhat like a human albino lacks sufficient pigmentation. Hadwin had an awakening. He turned against the logging companies, invoking the image of the golden spruce to fight the practice of clear-cutting. Despite his efforts, the response was silence, broken only by the sound of chain saws. Logging companies continued their relentless drive to cut the forests. In frustration, Hadwin felled the golden spruce himself, to divert attention back to the larger issue. When his detractors dismissed him as being insane, Hadwin replied: ‘When society places so much value on one mutant tree and ignores what happens to the rest of the forest, it’s not the person who points this out who should be labelled [insane].’


The Crystal Garden in Victoria was built by the CPR in 1925 as a recreational facility. (Photo: BC Archives)


As readers of Locale know well, conflicts of this kind often rage around buildings as well as trees. A legendary clash erupted a half century ago over Victoria’s beloved Crystal Garden. Built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1925 as a saltwater swimming pool and potted-palmed tea garden, it provided an amenity for guests at the CPR’s adjacent Empress Hotel. The Crystal Garden closed in 1967 because the salt had corroded the plumbing. Its threatened demolition sparked a massive popular preservation campaign. The Crystal Garden Preservation Society was formed by legendary broadcaster Pierre Berton, architect Peter Cotton, teacher Martin Segger, and others. Berton was then chair of the National Trust for Canada, known at the time as Heritage Canada, and Segger was a member of the Board of Governors. At the end of the day, Berton and his allies prevailed. The Crystal Garden remained standing. It was initially repurposed as a conservatory and now serves as a part of the Victoria Conference Centre.

Activists such as Grant Hadwin and Pierre Berton have helped to bring about the protection of many ancient forests and historic buildings. Headline-grabbing activism always helps, but permanence can be assured only with conservation law. Some governments have regulated protection for ages. The conservation of historic buildings offers a tried and true model for old trees. In the fifth century the Roman emperor Majorian passed a law declaring that ‘all the buildings that have been founded by the ancients as temples … shall not be destroyed by any person.’ Later directives issued by the Renaissance Popes Martin V and Pius II forbade damaging ancient monuments. Sweden began to protect historic sites in 1666 and many other countries soon followed suit. By the twentieth century, most developed nations had passed laws and set up the infrastructure to identify noteworthy heritage buildings and protect the most significant ones. Canada was a late arrival to the party.

The procedure for evaluation and protection here and in many other countries is straightforward. A set of heritage values, such as aesthetic, historical, social, and spiritual merit, defines what society holds as important. Historic places considered to have these values are listed on an inventory, also called a register. Government appoints a committee, representing diverse community interests, to appraise nominated buildings against the values. Those buildings that achieve high grades are recommended for protection (‘designation’). Elected officials make the final decision.


The Empress Hotel, Victoria, opened in 1908 and enlarged several times, has been commemorated as a national historic site and protected as a provincial heritage property. The Crystal Garden is out of sight behind it. (JFL Photography, Adobe Stock)


The Empress Hotel is one of many buildings evaluated and protected in this way, under provincial legislation. Built by the CPR as part of its chain of signature Château Style hotels, it dominates Victoria’s scenic Inner Harbour. Hundreds of thousands of buildings across Canada have been listed and perhaps 13,000 designated.  The Empress has also been recognized as a national historic site – a federal designation that unfortunately does not bring added protection.

Historic building legislation can protect landscape assets as well. The City of Vancouver, for example, has designated both the intimate Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden and the immense, 405-hectare Stanley Park as protected heritage property. The Vancouver Heritage Register lists three dozen trees, or groups of trees, as ‘landscape resources’. The most familiar of the lot is the Hollow Tree in Stanley Park, a National Historic Site. In generations past, tourists would park their cars in the hollowed-out tree and pose for the photographer. As UBC engineer Lorne Whitehead and the present author have written elsewhere, The Hollow Tree is the remnant of an ancient western red cedar (thuja plicata) that is about a thousand years old. Another heritage landscape on Vancouver’s register is Cambie Heritage Boulevard, a 40-block-long median strip that has been planted with more than 450 trees.

Looking overseas, we learn that local governments in England can protect trees with ‘Tree Preservation Orders’. At the countrywide level, Britain’s National Planning Policy Framework shuns proposals that would result in the loss or deterioration of ‘ancient or veteran trees’. It defines a veteran as ‘a tree which, because of its age, size and condition, is of exceptional biodiversity, cultural or heritage value.’ The Ancient Tree Forum, an English non-governmental organization (NGO), calls for ‘a robust system of protection’. Other places have the same kinds of laws. In Adelaide, Australia, trees with a circumference of two meters or more cannot be removed, killed, or lopped without the prior approval of the local council.

The global equivalent is UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention. It lists and protects natural and built places that hold ‘outstanding universal value’. Canada boasts twenty world heritage sites, which ‘present Canada’s stories of international significance to the world.’ Most are parks or urban districts, such as Wood Buffalo National Park and the Historic District of Old Québec. Haida Heritage Site, in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, off the north coast of BC, has been placed on the list of potential future world heritage sites. It is situated in a rainforest dominated by large Sitka spruces. Local ‘watchmen’ serve as guardians to protect its natural and cultural heritage.


Gwaii Haanas Watchman Walter Russ leads a tour in Haida Heritage Site, 2012. (Photo: Parks Canada)


Trees are cherished for both their tangible and their intangible values. The former include supporting biodiversity, stabilizing soil, and providing edible fruit and nuts. Cutting down a nurturing olive tree could be punished by death in ancient Greece. The intangible values revolve around the appreciation that the ‘cathedrals of nature’ often possess social and spiritual significance. As Swedish ecologists M. Blicharska and G. Mikusiński wrote in Conservation Biology, ‘the social importance of large old trees [is] often underestimated by the conservation community. … The awareness of large old trees as a part of human identity and cultural heritage is essential when addressing the issue of their decline worldwide.’

Associations and meanings also contribute to heritage value, whether we look at buildings or trees. The long-time architectural critic for the New York Times, Ada Louise Huxtable, wrote in Kicked a Building Lately?, ‘A good old building should develop layers of aesthetic meaning like the rings of a tree, continually enriched, rather than isolated, by contemporary functions.’

Nowhere is the importance of intangible cultural values more evident than among the Aboriginal people of Australia. They retain particularly strong connections with the land. Freelance writer Nayuka Gorrie, who identifies himself as a Djap Wurrung person, expressed his passionate reaction to the Major Roads Project Authority’s intention to destroy dozens of 800-year-old trees for the extension of a freeway near Ararat, Victoria. The intended mass destruction was in aid of saving drivers all of two minutes. Gorrie declared:

These trees are Djap Wurrung people’s inheritance. These trees are my inheritance, our inheritance. Their survival and our fight to keep them alive and safe are a cultural obligation and an assertion of our sovereignty.


Even without so strong a personal connection, writers often describe old trees in emotive terms. Australian ‘bush poet’ Henry Kendall wrote in ‘Mountains’:

Underneath these regal ridges – underneath the gnarly trees,
I am sitting, lonely-hearted, listening to a lonely breeze!


Emotion is central as well to the campaign to save Big Lonely Doug. The tree became a celebrity as soon as it was given its name. As Rustad writes, ‘This wasn’t just any tree in a forest. This was a sole survivor standing amid ruin. And its anthropomorphization resonated with people. It had a name, and a sad one, too.’

These kinds of feelings have inspired so-called ‘tree-huggers’ to chain themselves to precious, old trees. But to ensure the long-time survival of ancient trees and forests, activism must be translated into regulation. That is why activist Marie-Claire Cordonier Segger (daughter of Crystal Garden advocate Martin Segger) protested as a teenager from a tree limb in front of the BC Legislature. The younger Segger grew up to become an environmental lawyer. She now serves as a UN treaty negotiator and general counsel, the director of a sustainable development law centre, and professor of international law at the Universities of Cambridge (UK) and Waterloo (Canada). She recalls that she went out on the limb to urge the government ‘to save a special tree, waterfall, and valley – and actually an entire ecosystem – from degradation and destruction.’ It was, she asserts, ‘a question of deep injustice.’

Thanks to the work of Segger and other activists, several extraordinary forested regions in British Columbia have received formal protection. The vulnerable Carmanah and Walbran Valleys, for example, both sites of pitched battles a few decades ago, now comprise the highly valued 16,000-hectare Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park.

Making progress in conserving buildings and trees will require more than just a handful of building- and tree-huggers. Perhaps in time, heritage trees and forests may be protected as a matter of course, as are historic buildings and areas. All do much more than link the past with the present. They contribute significantly to our collective fight against climate change. This in turn makes advocacy more essential than ever. Victoria’s Crystal Garden was protected only after intense spadework by stars and community groups. The association of Avatar Grove with pop culture and other creative promotional campaigns caught the attention of the media and resonated with the masses.

Ongoing actions by individuals such as Berton, Hadwin, Wu, and Segger, and by organizations like the National Trust for Canada, the Crystal Garden Preservation Society, the Ancient Forest Alliance, and the Gwaii Haanas Watchmen, will always be needed. So too will future political champions, to draft new legislation; and ordinary citizens, to express their anger each time they see a significant historic building threatened or an old tree marked for removal. For now, however, we owe the survival of the Crystal Garden, Big Lonely Doug, and Canada’s gnarliest tree to acts of advocacy: Pierre Berton’s celebrity, Dennis Cronin’s contrarian accomplishment, and Ken Wu’s and T.J. Watt’s dogged persistence. They give us hope that Big Lonely Doug, the Empress Hotel, and the others will live to be hugged – and hugged in – again and again.



The author thanks Seyedhamed Yeganehfarzand, Lindsay Kaisla, Marie-Claire Cordonier Segger, and Ken Nicolson for their assistance with this article.