Meet the shy guy who became B.C.’s most distinguished forester

Rick Monchak of Timberwest holds a Douglas fir seedling, while standing in front of “teenaged” and mature firs. Last month Monchak received the rare honour of being named B.C. Distinguished Forester of the year. - Paul Rudan/The Mirror
Rick Monchak of Timberwest holds a Douglas fir seedling, while standing in front of “teenaged” and mature firs. Last month Monchak received the rare honour of being named B.C. Distinguished Forester of the year.
— image credit: Paul Rudan/The Mirror

With firm but gentle hands, Rick Monchak holds the future of forestry.

It’s just a foot-long Douglas fir seedling, one of millions planted annually in the coastal forests.

Nonetheless, it’s Monchak’s baby, a toddler in the tree world that requires one last fatherly inspection before heading out to its new home – a cut-block in the Discovery Islands.

“It’s such an art to grow these,” he says, slowly spinning it between two fingers, checking top to bottom for good traits and imperfections.

Working outside on a cool winter afternoon, doing quality control on a selection of 850,000 seedlings, doesn’t seem like the right job for a man recently named British Columbia’s Distinguished Forest Professional of the Year.

This is no job though.

“It’s a passion. I use that word a lot,” says the professional forester.

It’s a career – a passion – he’s indulged himself in for the last 35 years. What started as a summer job for the 18-year-old Chilliwack resident at the Cultus Lake Forest Ranger station, led to degrees in forestry and biology at the University of British Columbia, which opened the road to Campbell River where Monchak now oversees the management of tree farm licence 47 (TFL 47) for Timberwest Forest Corp.

And all along that career path, others noticed Monchak’s passion and professionalism.

“The Distinguished Forester of the year is not something awarded every year,” notes Steve Lorimer, president of the Association of BC Forest Professionals. “When I saw he was nominated, I was delighted. He is a very keen and enthusiastic forester.”

Lorimer and Monchak have known each other 30 years, although they’ve never worked together in the same place at the same time. And their business relationship had nothing to do with the honour, as Monchak’s nomination was supported by his peers and government, Lorimer points out.

“He works to solve problems and to find solutions,” says Lorimer. “This is a significant award…and it was really good to present an award to someone you know.”

Career Path

Monchak worked summers for the B.C. Forest Service through his university years, 1970-1977, and thought he would never work for industry. But student loans and bills can change a young man’s mind.

Upon graduating the forest service offered him a four-month job. Then B.C. Forest Products offered him six months work.

“The company had a good reputation among many of the professors – 35 years later, here I am,” Monchak says with a smile.

It was a great start, he recalls; a company with family-type values and whose senior members passed along their knowledge to the junior employees.

Monchak rose through the ranks, survived ownership changes including the Fletcher Challenge tenure – “the dark years,” he says – and then the company became Timberwest.

Along the way, he learned how to handle controversial issues, such as in 1993 during the angry protests over clearcut logging in Clayquot Sound.

“I’ve had the Raging Grannies sing me ‘Take Me Out to the Clearcut’,” he says with admiration.

In addition to his abilities as a forester, Monchak learned a new skill that would advance his career: the art of diplomacy.

He always had the ability to listen and learn, but to speak on behalf of a large company was something else.

“I went into forestry in part because trees don’t talk back,” he says, half-joking.

Shy as a teenager, public speaking wasn’t Monchak’s strength. But it’s a skill he’s mastered and has become as important to his credentials as his two BA degrees.

These days Monchak is a coveted guest speaker at industry and stakeholder conventions, happily gives lectures to forestry students, and once a year instructs the local Elder College class on how to grow better dahlias.

His diplomatic touch is also a necessity for his current role at TimberWest.

TFL 47 stretches from Discovery Islands north through Johnstone Strait and touches on parts of the mainland.

It’s public land, managed by Timberwest, and controversy is brewing there too. Frustration is mounting among the recreational stakeholders who become angry when picturesque views are marred by clearcuts to the waterline.

Monchak is well-aware of the issues and calmly goes about meeting with stakeholders, First Nations, the public and the complex government bureaucracy that goes hand-in-hand with TFL management.

“It never gets boring,” he says simply, but later adds, “Visual quality is very challenging and very subjective.

“This is a multi-stakeholder public resource and we [Timberwest] are very proud of what we do.”

The key, Monchak believes, is to be as open as possible with stakeholders, follow through on plans, and to compromise when there’s flexibility to do so.

And if the stakeholders think that Monchak listens and respects their concerns, they should thank his older brother Darcy, a retired government forester.

“We’ve always talked and he provides a lot of different perspectives…I’m blessed to have a brother.”

Family, Career & Extras

Monchak describes himself as a happy guy. Fit and trim, the distinguished grey hair is the only hint he’s 60 years old.

The three most important things in life, he believes, are family, career and extra-curricular.

“I think I’ve hit home runs in all three,” he says. “I’ve been pretty lucky…and all three need to be connecting to be a happy person.”

He and wife Jane have been married 33 years. They raised two daughters, mostly in Campbell River after living in Duncan for the first 10 years of his career.

Like many newcomers, the Monchaks thought they would stay in the River City a couple a years and move on. That was 1989.

Campbell River quickly became home. Monchak is the treasurer of the curling club and treasurer at St. Peter’s Anglican Church where he also serves on the board of the community garden.

“I enjoy my volunteer time. It’s fun…and we love Campbell River,” says Monchcak who also enjoys golfing.

He was thrilled to have Jane with him in Prince George when he received the forestry award last month.

“It’s a very humbling thing. The list of the people who’ve received this award are icons of the profession. I don’t put myself in that group,” he says.

And when the word got out about his award, the congratulatory messages and phone calls came flooding in, some from people he last spoke to 30 years ago. It was almost over-whelming, and then came the guiding influence of Jane.

“My wife told me, ‘Just say thank-you,’” he says with a grin.

The glow of the award didn’t last long. It’s tree planting time or, as Monchak says, “The circus is here.”

It’s a very busy time of year and Monchak is out at Sylvan Vale Nursery in Black Creek where he and colleague Deirdre Bruce are checking on the health of the little trees soon to be planted.

With an expert hand and eye, Monchak pulls and prods at the roots, looking for a healthy orange colour on the exterior along with white root tips, not yellow. They’re sampling the 850,000 seedlings because they don’t want the planters doing quality control.

They plant – 35,000-40,000 trees a day with 20 planters – while it’s Monchak’s job to make sure the forest grows and matures for the next generations. As part of the planting routine, Monchak will have a trial site which he can return to in a year to check on the overall health of the trees.

This is critically important, he points out, because the trial provides the forester with valuable knowledge about the growing conditions and the suitability of the location.

“The forester who doesn’t have a trial, doesn’t have a silviculture soul,” he says, telling a joke that only foresters can truly appreciate.

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