The vanishing giant that built a province
The Douglas Fir survived the Ice Age, saw Drake and Cook and gave birth to B.C.’s greatest industry. Now ravaged by loggers, made old-fashioned by science, it’s past the point of no return
Though it has historically provided British Columbia with the bulk of its income, the rich grain of its western character, and the picturewindow comfort of its ranch-style houses on the hills, the Douglas Fir never has quite made the grade socially in the province that it built.
By Macdonald Reynolds
The Douglas Fir survived the Ice Age, saw Drake and Cook and gave birth to B.C.’s greatest industry. Now ravaged by loggers, made old-fashioned by science, it’s past the point of no return
'X hough it has historically provided British Columbia with the bulk of its income, the rich grain of its western character, and the picturewindow comfort of its ranch-style houses on the hills, the Douglas Fir never has quite made the grade socially in the province that it built.
The people of the coast have tended to keep it below stairs, carelessly calling it a pine, saving their passion for the red-skinned arbutus and the flowering dogwood. They let logging crews push it back into the wilderness where only the high rigger, who climbed it and trimmed it into a spar, could marvel at this wonder tree that can grow thirty stories high, pack enough tough yellow wood into one log to build a row of houses, and flaunt living trees that were seedlings before the Crusades and forest satraps at the time of Columbus.
Not until the end of the Second World War did the B. C. government introduce effective legislation to protect its share of the world's most significant softwood tree. Fast September, however, with the release of a progress report on a decade of perpetual-yield forestry. British Columbians finally were told that they had called the cops too late. Like the goJd that once brought the adventurers to the sandbars of the Fraser, the munificent fir forest of the Canadian west is just about exhausted.
British Columbia, which has cut down two billion dollars worth of the fabulous fir in the past fifty years, got the bad news in a royalcommission report on the province's forest resources. It read like an obituary. "British Columbia." said Chief Justice Gordon Sloan, “is witnessing the swift passing of an era soon to be nothing more than a memory . . . We can never recreate our ancient and giant Douglas Firs, upon which our dominant position in the world lumber market was founded ... It is an outmoded, uneconomic philosophy based largely on sentiment to try to keep the province’s forests predominantly fir.”
Piratical logging, sloppy forest housekeeping and a drop-in-the-bucket planting program have brought the fir forest to the brink of a famine from which, probably, it never will really recover. Yet is B. C. downhearted at the death of the goose that laid its golden eggs? The answer is a rather sad no. Science doesn’t need big trees any more. Grey-flanneled alchemists are making their own gold these days out of weed wood and resin glue. Planks are figuratively being squeezed out of tubes, and flagpoles soon may be whipped up in a laboratory while you wait.
And B. C. has its attic crammed w'ith the trees that chemists cry for, a tree born for the test tubes, the prolific continued on page 50
The vanishing giant that built a province continued from page 25
Pound for pound, the Douglas Fir is stronger than concrete, and a much better insulator
Western Hemlock. It is a Johnny-comelately that was shaded to death by the prima donna Douglas Fir when nature was running the wildwood, and treated very rudely by coast lumbermen right up until the Second World War. It is the
hottest number in the British Columbia forest today.
But the Douglas Fir, which has a bark thicker than the whole trunk of many lesser trees, has left the eager hemlock a difficult throne to fill.
Only two percent of B. C.’s quarter of a billion acres is fit to be tilled and plowed. Sixty-six percent is water, mountaintop, swamp, muskeg and barren. The remaining thirty-two percent is forest— forest of cedar and spruce and birch
and yellow pine and white pine and lodgepole pine and larch and cottonwood and hemlock and Douglas Fir, the dying king. Thus, British Columbia is a forest province. whether it likes the idea or not, as money pies sliced over the pages of coast newspapers remind it when strike or slump or weather tie up the woods. Certainly, when a prolonged loggers' walkout cost the province an estimated hundred and fifty million dollars in 1952, most citizens agreed that fisheries and mines and manufacturing were nice in their way, but trees were even nicer.
In a province where the forest industry is a six-hundred-million-dollar-a-year operation, accounting for thirty-six percent of the net value of production, the Douglas Fir as recently as 1956 was cutting a lion’s share of the mustard. Two and a half billion board feet of fir were skidded off the mountains and out of the valleys in that one year, far more than any other single type of tree and a husky thirty-eight percent of all wood cut in the province. But even then, the day-to-day balance sheets did not tell the whole story. The fir cutters were living on capital.
When the first loggers leaned on their single-bitted axes and wondered how in tarnation they would topple the big trees, there were probably one hundred and forty billion board feet of Douglas Fir in the B. C. woods. About eighty-six billion are left today. It sounds like a lot of wood, and it is a lot of wood, enough to build perhaps ten million three-bedroom houses. The catch is that there is hardly any new fir forest rising to take its place. In the ten years ending in 1955. the stockpile of mature Douglas Firs dwindled from twenty-four percent to only thirteen percent of the forest total. Chief Justice Sloan had good reason to survey the B. C. forest industry and conclude that "it may be two hundred years before our forests approach the ideal, with age classes in proper balance.”
Eric Garman, research silviculturist with B. C.’s forestry department in Victoria, predicts the fir famine will begin in the middle 1960s and last until after the turn of the century. Statisticians in the neighboring bureau of economics work from different statistics, prefer the word "gap” to "famine,” and give the reign of the fir an extra ten years.
Its milled wood, in products ranging from cradles to coffins, will be more enduring, for fir is stronger pound for pound than concrete. Wind-tunnel tests conducted in the United States have demonstrated that a farmhouse constructed of Douglas Fir can weather a hundred-and-fiftymile-an-hour hurricane. The wood has unusual insulation qualities too, and thin fir staves will keep frost out of a silo better than thick concrete. So, long after the B. C. fir forest has become just another memory, to be swapped in the shops that sell second-hand loggers’ boots, the evidence of its greatness will be hard at hand, in a lock gate of a canal, a fishboat, a piece of furniture, a barrel, a hundred-foot timber in a dock, a flossy wall in a cocktail bar, a tent peg in an army camp, a compressed-sawdust log in a fireplace, a brown paper bag in a supermarket, a telephone pole in Eire, a railroad tie in India, a gavel in a Bay Street boardroom.
The magnanimity of the Douglas Fir toward British Columbia is the more re-
markable considering that the Canadian side of the border got only the neck when the great turkey was portioned out. Washington and Oregon to the south have ten Douglas Firs to British Columbia’s one.
It is believed the fir forest appeared on the coast before the Ice Age, seeding its front over the Bering bridge from Asia. The glaciers did not reach the southern fringe of the forest, and it moved north again when they receded. It moved two hundred miles north of Vancouver and about the same distance into the interior dry belts and even filtered over the Rockies via the Crows Nest Pass.
The big tree flourishes best in a moderate humid climate, with its mass of roots, reaching thirty feet on all sides, knuckled flat into well-drained soil. It found these conditions on Vancouver Island, and on the mainland coast, and in these places, more than elsewhere, it grew high and wide and handsomely, cleanlimbed for as high as a hundred and fifty feet. Its bark became a foot thick and more, and cleft like a crocodile's hide, and the elliptic resin blisters on the bark breathed turpentine on the forest wildlife. It looked like a Christmas tree that didn’t know when to stop.
Like the Phoenix, it thrived on fire. Most of Vancouver Island was burned over in the distant past, and it was the Douglas Fir that survived. Its spongy bark contains tannic acid, a common ingredient in fire-extinguisher fluids, and it usually shrugged off lightning bolts. But when a fire did kindle in the litter at its feet, and the fire became a holocaust, it was the fir that survived long enough to drop its pendulous straw-colored cones, and produce a new forest—a forest purer than before, because fir crowns flatten as the trees grow old, and block the sunlight. shading most undergrowth to death.
Cougars in anibush
So the classical fir forest emerged, in which the trees stood, like arrogant Doric columns, in a parkland of sword fern, ocean spray, red huckleberry, sweetsmelling vanilla plants, a star-tipped moss and a thick litter of needles. As the trees breathed and stretched and swelled, they pumped from root to crown a thousand tons of rain water for every ton of wood, and some of them pumped eighty thousand tons of water in their lifetimes. And the year rings rippled outward like the ever-widening circles that come when a stone is thrown into a still pond.
Deer used the clean fir-forest trails as freeways, and rutted there in the fall, because the big trees were spaced well apart. They dropped their fawns in the fir forest in the spring, in beds of sloughed-off bark, but they did not live there. The cougars lived there, in hollow logs, and they ambushed the deer. There were wolves in the fir forest too, and bears, which sometimes stripped the thick bark to get at the sweet cambium layer. There were bald eagles who built their aeries in the top of the crowns. And lower down the social register, owls, and hawks, and the Blue Jays, and the Whisky Jacks.
This was the fir forest when Sir Francis Drake sailed the Golden Hind along the Pacific coast in the sixteenth century. He wasn’t impressed, and went back home muttering about the thick mists and stinking fogs, marking himself in British Columbia's book as the first of the ingrates.
Captain James Cook took a more charitable view of the forest when he came by, fretting behind the Spanish in 1778, perhaps because his masts were falling down. He replaced them with Douglas
Firs felled by his carpenters at Nootka Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. He probably was the first man to make use of the tree, for the Indians had found it too big to handle, and hewed their dugouts and totem poles from the more malleable Red Cedar or Cottonwood.
The Douglas Fir moved out of the forest and into high society in the train of a European fad for floral exotica in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It was a strangely exciting period, an escape into the sunshine from the shadow of Napoleon, when a man was measured by the lushness of his garden, and rival horticultural societies dispatched collectors to the wildest corners of the world, and the discovery of a rare lousewort was a matter of coffee-house excitement and even national pride.
The first of these intrepid botanists to make contact with the Douglas Fir of the Pacific northwest was Archibald Menzics, a Perthshire man and surgeon-naturalist with Captain George Vancouver. But Vancouver, a choleric personality at times, prevented Menzics from adding the great evergreen to his other botanical honors. When the Scot complained that the explorer was giving his shrubbery short shrift, Vancouver clapped Menzics in irons for “insolence and contempt.” Thus, although Menzics had recognized the tree as a comer, he arrived back in London in 1795 with only a handful of hairy orange twigs and some lively yarns as documentation of his marvelous find.
It was almost thirty years later that Menzies led another Scottish naturalist, David Douglas, through his London garden. briefed him on the wonder tree of the west, and told him to go off and finish the job. Douglas was the son of a tombstone carver in the old Scottish capital of Scone. He earned his botanical spurs when his English sponsors put him to work plant hunting in the eastern United States when he was barely out of his teens. His dedication was such that he even botanized a New York vegetable market, sending home what amounted to secret-service reports on Yankee tomatoes. When he was assigned, then, to botanize the Pacific northwest, his backers bravely wrote him off. “It is really lamentable,” one said, “that so fine a fellow should be sacrificed.”
When one fits Douglas into his niche in history—hard on the heels of such professionals as Simon Fraser—his subsequent seven-year exploration of the wild and untracked fir forest, a lonely and harmless man in fustian waistcoat and nankeen breeches, does seem venturesome indeed.
It was in the spring of 1825 that Douglas got his first look at the forbidding coast forest, from the deck of a Hudson's Bay Company boat in the mouth of the Columbia River. He spotted the big fir right away, hastening to note in his journal that it was “one of the most striking and truly graceful objects in nature.”
Granted a voice, the mute firs might well have expressed a "gee whiz" at Douglas in return. He seemed a ready breakfast for a hungry cougar, small, weak-eyed and bespectacled, quite beautiful in the Byronesque manner, and intensely religious. When on the trail, with his Scottie dog as his only companion, he dispensed with socks as sheer luxury, but carried a big Bible for himself, and for the Indians a packsack full of jew'sharps, scalping knives, and shillings neatly bored so that the chiefs could wire them through their noses. The Indians thought Douglas was a character and called him the “Grass Man.” He, in turn, suspected they sometimes ate the calves of young men’s legs, and prefaced every
introduction to a new village with a display of trick shooting.
He was wretchedly paid: an auction of a few minor plants he sent home realized more than his entire seven-year salary. But with Douglas the money didn't matter; once, when he deliberately missed a boat to England, he wrote his backers that he would willingly put in a couple of years for nothing. Often ill. he crossed the Rockies on foot, climbed a likely peak just for the view (Mount Douglas in the Canadian Rockies today bears his name). Although his eyes failed so badly that he had to order a Bible with jumbo print, he once beat his way overland from the Fraser to Hudson Bay with two bad-tempered bald eagles in his kit. On another occasion he almost lost his life when his canoe was smashed in a reckless shooting of a Fraser rapids.
Although Douglas is credited with discovering two hundred and fifteen plants, more than any other botanist, the fir described to him by Menzies towered over them all. In his journal Douglas told of his awe at measuring firs on the ground that were two hundred and twenty-seven feet long and forty-eight feet around at the butt. He found standing trees too tall to climb. As his buckshot could not roach the cones, he got his specimen seeds by rifling the winter cone caches of squirrels. The forestry department pays schoolboys to do the same today.
“The wood," he wrote of the big fir, “may be found very useful for a variety of domestic purposes, the young slender ones exceedingly well adapted for making ladders and scaffold poles, not being liable to cast, the larger timber for more important purposes, while at the same time the resin may be found deserving attention.”
The last stop was Hawaii
Understandably, he couldn't know the half of it, hardly able to foresee the day a hundred and thirty years later when the tree bearing his name would give B. C. lumbermen five percent of world production (although hardly the “dominant position” in the world lumber market as seen by Chief Justice Gordon Sloan). Eating his Christmas dinner of salmonberry shoots off a salal-leaf plate and taking his tea from an empty snuffbox, he could not envision that B. C. would build a million-dollar-a-year Christmastree business out of young Douglas Firs. He was dead right about the resin. Resin glue, binding together thin fir sheets, was the magic property that made possible plywood, and the sagas of little dinghies of B. C. fir plywood crossing the Atlantic, and the province's ninety-percent cut of the Canadian plywood industry. Furthermore, it wasn’t too long ago that itinerant woodsmen stopped tapping the bark blisters of the big tree for turpentine, and scraping the needles for exuded chemical sugar.
David Douglas died in 1834 at thirtyfive and in a forest. But it was not the balsam-fragrant forest of the Pacific northwest, the one love of his life for this bachelor Scot; it was the fetid forest of Hawaii. The passion that developed into botany’s most productive seven-year itch had not abated, but [Douglas was being called home, probably to honors and life as a London social lion. Hawaii was a stop on the way. Chronic collector to the end, Douglas had panned some lava from a volcano and then, with his Scottie. strode off along a forest path. His body was found in a wild-bull pit. Because his purse was missing, and because the one bull trapped in the pit was found to be a gentle Ferdinand creature,
ture sawmill operators could take lightly. The botanical nomenclators in London had got off to a shaky start themselves, erroneously tagging it a pine, a whopper no less embarrassing because it was in Latin. The truth is. the tree is not a true fir at all. It shares characteristics with much of the evergreen family. It was th Japanese who got the botanists off th -hook, eventually, by solemnly explaining that they had, on their islands, the tree's closest cousin and already had it in the bluebooks as Pseudotsuga taxi folia, or False Hemlock. And there, confusingly, the matter lies—the big tree that boomed the B. C. forest industry into a six-hundred-million-dollar-a-year operation bears the common name of Douglas Fir, although it is not a fir, and a botanical name of False Hemlock, for it is not a hemlock either.
As its pungent yellow wood smelled equally sweet under all its names, pioneer woodsmen lost no time chopping it down. Some fir was being loaded on East India Company ships for the Orient trade as early as Menzies' day. But the industry proper began, in what was to become B. C., in 1848, two years after the Oregon Boundary Treaty showed Canadians where they stood, and ten years before the province’s birth. The Hudson’s Bay Company tossed up a little water-power ed mill at the head of Esquimalt Harbor on Vancouver Island, and Indians supplied the logs, at the going rate of eight logs for a blanket. The gold rush on the Fraser pushed sawmilling on the mainland. The first mill was on Burrard Inlet, where North Vancouver now stands. It sawed its first board in 1863, soon was shipping fir spars and shingles pretty well around the world.
The sanctified acres of Vancouver's Stanley Park almost housed a sawmill. An English sea captain. Edward Stamp, actually started work on the site before changing his mind and building his mill farther along the inlet. It became known as Hastings Mill and it was around this mill that Vancouver grew. It was only ninety-one years ago, but life was hardly tedious; the English company that sup plied the machinery saw fit to include cannon, muskets, swords, handcuffs and* leg irons.
Stamp was the first man to give away Douglas Firs as flagpoles but certainly not the last. The Illustrated Guide of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, in England, to this day gives Stamp several inches of publicity. The first pole he gave the gardens was from Port Alberni on Vancouver Island; it measured one hundred and eighteen feet. It was cut in two by a boat while being towed up the Thames and Stamp, who figured he could do better anyway, promptly shipped another. which was one hundred and fiftynine feet high. It stood in Kew from 1861 to 1919. The one there now was a gift from the B. C. government and is the biggest of them all — two hundred and fourteen feet in height.
They were pretty big trees then. A man called Douglas Carey is said to have chopped down a Douglas Fir in the valley of North Vancouver’s Seymour River in 1895; it was four hundred and seventeen feet high, three hundred feet to the first limb and twenty-five feet in diameter. But the best provincial-government records can do is produce a three-hundredand-five-foot fir cut in the Nimpkish forest of Vancouver Island. Another in the West Vancouver area was fourteen feet in diameter, and a fir cut near Cowichan Lake on Vancouver Island took the heavyweight record with eighty tons. The
murder was suspected, an investigation held, but the mystery has never been cleared. Douglas was buried on the island. His Scottie was shipped back to England.
David Douglas — dead on the same Sandwich Islands that fifty-odd years before had seen the murder of Captain Cook—today is a forgotten man. He finished the job for Menzies. minutely cataloguing the big fir of the west, sending home seeds and living plants and even milled boards, and he lived to see it given his name. But he is a badly blur-
red figure in the gallery of heroes of the Canadian west, largely because of another Douglas—a big, swarthy, dark-skinned Hudson Bay agent whom David had met during one of his forest expeditions. This imposing man. James Douglas, became B. C.’s first governor, and although the evidence seems to show that his interest in trees was limited to their role in the hanging of villains, he has, by a sort of induction, poached his namesake’s hard-won honors. "Almost everyone in this province,” the forestry department’s Eric Garman said recently with quiet des-
pair. “thinks the tree is named after Sir James.”
Even without the governor’s innocent intrusion, the naming of the new baby of the world’s woods was a mess from beginning to end. Every tree has a common name and a botanical name, but the Douglas Fir has a surfeit of both. Among its early aliases in the common-name category were Oregon Pine, Red Pine, Puget Sound Pine, Oregon Spruce, Red Spruce, Red Fir. Yellow Fir, Oregon Fir, even Spruce Fir. The drawing up of a bill of lading in the old days was not an adven-
age record is held by a Vancouver Island fir thirteen hundred years old.
The fir forest, stretching unbroken over the horizon, seemed like an inexhaustible mine. Loggers regarded lesser trees in the way whaling men regard herring. The Douglas Fir was not only the largest tree in Canada; its branchclean trunk meant no knots, its unusually large heartwood meant it weathered evenly without checking or splitting or warping. The pioneers with their oxen and their skid roads greased with whale blubber and their lower lips packed with snoose could hardly be expected to know the tree's very virtues were one of the seeds of its destruction. The remarkable beauty of its grain and the dense hardness of its heartwood were the result of its slow growth, suicidally slow for lengthy competition with the mushroom-like forests of the south. “The only timber exported in cargoes,” says an authority of the late 1800s, “is that of Douglas fir. commonly called pine.” It was fir that gave the smoke tang to Vancouver's saltwater mists, fir that paid for the bar whisky in the dives on Cordova and Main streets, fir that soared straight and high in the cool clean forests and hummed a psalm for the wandering pine pastors.
Oxen were succeeded by horses, and then the skidding of the big logs was done with ship's winches; then came logging railroads, and then huge diesel jobs roaring over fancy logging highways, and cars that rode on cables strung between spar trees, and called skyhooks. The men, who once had to carry their own blankets from camp to camp, were organized, and got washing machines and pool tables and girl flunkies. The big loggers became the Bloedels, the Gibsons, the Foleys, and H. R. MacMillan, who had been B. C.'s first chief forester.
The fir export business gained impetus after the First World War. Rival B. C. lumber salesmen competed hotly around the globe for business, got it and pushed it to the point where, by 1954, the last big export year, it vyas bringing in a hundred and twenty million dollars a year. "The world-wide market was there,” says H. R. MacMillan, “ready to be sold on a larger scale by British Columbians, and we came on the scene at a favorable time. When I started. I never expected to make a million dollars.”
While the salesmen were peddling Douglas Fir the forest was going down the drain. A multitude of factors, of w'hich overcutting was but one, were then, and are now, shaping the tragic destiny of the big tree. Each year, enough standing timber is burned in B. C. to build almost eleven thousand homes. To try to save these forests, B. C. loggers have employed commercial rainmakers, who claim to wring the coast clouds with bombardments of silver iodide.
Decay-causing diseases create a further loss of more than four hundred million board feet annually. Insects take their toll, and between 1942 and 1946 in just one forest, the Nimpkish, bark beetles killed more than seventy - five million board feet of Douglas Fir.
A rodent called the white-footed deer mouse—taken seriously enough by the B.C. Forest Service to have been the subject of a two-year study—cuts severely into natural regeneration of the fir forest. Although only three and a half inches long, it can eat more than three hundred fir seeds a day, and is found as numerous as forty to a forest acre.
Another seed robber is the coast’s lively red squirrel. It makes its home in the fir crown, holds the cones in its paws and strips it like a boy eating a cob of corn. After a squirrel party, there are often enough spat-out scales on the ground to
make a very comfortable bed for a deer.
The reluctant sex life of the Douglas Fir also is a contributing factor to Chief Justice Sloan’s “end of an era.” It frequently goes four or five years without producing a crop of seeds.
The seeds, when they do appear, are large and heavy, and will not travel more than two hundred and fifty feet under their own steam. Unless patch logging is employed, so remaining stands can naturally reseed cutover areas, the fir is like a baseball pitcher whose throw can’t quite reach the plate.
It is one of the projects of British Columbia’s red-shirted Junior Forest Wardens to harvest the cone crops for nursery seedling production, a chore in which they are joined by prison work gangs and farmers working on contract. "It costs us thirty dollars an acre to plant Douglas Fir," Eric Druce. publicity director for the forest service, said recently. "Nature regenerates hemlock free. Why should we want fir back?"
Hemlock, heir apparent to Douglas Fir, is a prolific broadcaster of seed, now outnumbers fir two to one and stocks are
actually increasing. Its light seed travels. It needs less sunlight, grows in moister and cooler locations, is even at home in such spots as Henderson Lake, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, whose average two hundred and fifty-one inches of annual rainfall make it one of the wettest areas on earth. The hemlock isn't a spellbinder like the ramrod-straight, stifflimbed, pyramidal fir. It averages only one hundred to one hundred and fifty feet in height and about three feet in diameter. It has a soft nodding, lazy look, waves limp feathery branches low on its
trunk. It is susceptible to fire, looks like it would be a pushover in a high wind, and is. But it is no prima donna, like the fir; it is versatile and works easily into floors and barrels and doors and is superior to fir for pulp and paper, which recently boomed into a two-hundred-million-dollar annual B. C. business.
B. C.’s dyed-in-the-wool tir tycoons were not readily convinced of hemlock’s attractiveness. For years the little hemlock they stooped to cut generally arrived in Europe almost as ballast, green, bluestained and looking for a bad name. It took the Koerners, a Czechoslovak lumbering family, to appreciate the province's enormous stocks of this scorned wood, give it back its melodious and forgotten name of Alaska Pine, and refine it for the carriage trade. Their success was so resounding that coast lumbermen had to move into hemlock too, merge for strength, diversify their production. “But even without the Koerners,” maintains the forestry department’s Eric Garman, “the overcut of accessible fir would have made them switch sooner or later.”
British Columbia followed the pattern of exploitation common to almost all forested states. Early governments got quick money parceling out forest at bargain-basement prices. Curbs were negligible, reforestation a toy.
The B.C. Forest Service, underprivileged and overworked, had to play Johnny Appleseed. Even today, in an age of mechanical planters, it has teams of men with mattocks planting seedlings in near-Biblical fashion. It handles no tree other than Douglas Fir in its nurseries, but even thus specialized it has got no more than eighty-five million seedlings into the ground since the program started over thirty years ago. Private loggers, in spite of well-publicized seeding from helicopters, can account for only twenty-six million. An indicting contrast is to be found in the much faster-maturing and hotly competitive pine forests of the southern United States where they are planting five hundred million seedlings a year, or almost five times as many annually as B. C. has planted in its whole forest history.
Discouraging as the regeneration figures undoubtedly are, the survival of the wonderful Douglas Fir as a Canadian species, if not as an economic cornucopia, seems assured through the forest-management licenses of recent years.
The fine print in the contracts which give B. C.’s big loggers virtual empires to operate as tree farms insists that enough firs be babied along to show future generations at least what they're
missing. There is, too, a flickering hope that the vast B. C. interior may be hiding a lot of good firs which have escaped survey. Certainly Chief Justice Sloan’s “end of an era’’ has produced no visible panic in the coast’s virile plywood industry. “The Douglas Fir is finished not because it has been overcut, really, but because it is out of date, like the dinosaur and the battleships of the Royal Navy,” one observer of the B. C. lumber industry put it recently. “Don’t worry, there’ll always be enough around to finish off the rumpus room.”
Like many Canadian products, the Douglas Fir has been honored abroad as it has not been at home. It was a mainstay of postwar reforestation in Britain where, surprisingly, it grows better than in B. C. There are eighty-year-old stands of Douglas Firs in Germany now. There’s a commemorative grove of firs planted around David Douglas’ grave in Hawaii —no grateful thought of the B. C. lumber industry but a gesture from the Burns Club in Hilo. A seed Douglas sent home in 1827 is a sturdy oldtimer in the Scone palace grounds near his birthplace, where he has not been forgotten.
No tears for the Fir
Yet in Vancouver, Gordon Sloan’s blunt announcement that the Douglas Fir was washed up left citizens strangely unmoved, although this was the tree that built B. C., and although Vancouver was born as an adjunct to a fir mill, founded its seaport on fir-trade square riggers, became Canada’s third largest city through marketing fir. The city's two daily newspapers ran between them twenty-three highlights of Sloan's Royal Commission report in boxscore fashion on their front pages, but not one concerned the fall of the mighty fir. To celebrate this year’s Centennial, stunts considered ranged from a pier for meditation in Stanley Park’s Lost Lagoon to a race around the world, but the big tree that started it all, as one Centennial public-relations man admitted, simply didn’t seem anything people would be interested in.
Successive B. C. governments have botched every chance to buy up prime and accessible stands of Douglas Fir for posterity. The whole lower mainland raised a hue and cry in the late 1920s when private loggers moved in on Green Timbers, the last of the magnificent Fraser Valley stands, straddling the TransCanada highway only a few miles outside New Westminster. While the government was wondering whether it could afford to interfere, the seven-hundred-acre block
of classic fir forest was completely logged. Only then did the government step in, buy the land, and put its conscience money into the Green Timbers nursery that now stands on the spot.
That British Columbia has even one public preserve of prime Douglas Firs is due to H. R. MacMillan, the tough old man who probably cut the biggest swath through the fir forest of them all. He has given to the people of B. C. a thrcehundred-and-fifty-acre stand of superb fir giants, which borders the Alberni Highway of Vancouver Island. Its name is
Cathedral Grove. The firs are neither the island’s biggest, nor the oldest, although there is one tree whose twenty-seven hundred cubic feet of lumber would build two five-room homes, and others that were sawlogs when Wolf stormed Quebec.
A lot of trippers make their way to Cathedral Grove, and they follow winding spongy paths church-dim from the high filtered light, and soak in the solid authority of the seemingly indestructible giants, and return to their cars, dwarfed, but knowing that this was how it was. ★