On Monday, B.C.’s coastal forest industry celebrated signing the Great Bear Rainforest conservation agreement along with the region’s First Nations and environmental groups. But the companies involved don’t have a lot of time to rest on their laurels.

The deal offers the forest licensees certainty around access to an annual harvest of 2.5 million cubic metres of timber for the next 10 years, but to access it they must now craft specific plans that spell out how they will meet 8,000 targets to preserve ecological and cultural objectives across some 143 landscapes within the sprawling 6.4-million-hectare region.

“So there’s a lot of work to be done,” said Rick Jeffery, CEO of the Coast Forest Products Association, and chief negotiator for the industry’s association, the Coast Forest Conservation Initiative.

The deal reduces the region’s timber harvest by about 30 per cent, but Jeffery said the trade-off for industry is confidence.

“This gives us clear running rules for how we operate up there,” he said. “It sets out 550,000 hectares of working forest to operate on, and we can operate sustainably on that.”

Five licensees, the companies Interfor, Western Forest Products, Catalyst Paper, and Howe Sound Pulp & Paper, as well as Crown agency B.C. Timber Sales, will be bound by the new process.

It also puts up to 17 per cent of that timber base into the hands of First Nations in the region, Jeffery said, which gives them opportunities to partner with companies on economic development initiatives.

The end result wasn’t universally praised.

Ian McAllister, with the conservation group Pacific Wild, acknowledged the deal’s positive aspects, but said he found it “hard to describe the destruction” of 2.5 million cubic metres per year of coastal forests a conservation success.

However, Jeffery said the work will start with the province enacting legislation and orders to give the agreement force.

Then those licensees will have up to four months to revise their forest stewardship plans — the documents that companies are required to produce to set out how they will comply with their legal obligations — to include the objectives under the Great Bear Rainforest agreement.

After that, Jeffery said, the companies’ foresters will have to draw up the more detailed plans, which are being called strategic land reserve designs, that abide by the principals of ecosystem-based land management.

The deal allows logging on 15 per cent of the Great Bear Rainforest’s land base, Jeffery said, but the SLRD plans will have to describe in detail how they will meet targets to preserve ecological values such as habitat preservation, wildlife conservation, protection for species at risk and cultural values within each landscape unit.

“(That) is literally drawing lines on the map saying here’s where we are not operating in order to meet targets,” Jeffery said.

Landscape units are geographical features such as river watersheds or valleys defined by heights of land within the mountainous central-coast region. And with potentially several licensees operating in one landscape unit, Jeffrey said drawing up the SLRD plans will involve a high degree of cooperation.
“You’ve got to have and SLRD in at least draft form before you can be applying for cutting permits,” Jeffery said, although pre-existing permits will be grandfathered into the deal so there will be continuity of operations while the licensees bring their operations into compliance.

The process of drawing up those plans will likely take a couple of years to complete, Jeffery added, as licensees bring operations into compliance with the new legislation.

The Great Bear Rainforest agreement officially ends 20 years of conflict over logging in a region that contains one quarter of the world’s remaining intact temperate rainforest.

The Coast Forest Conservation Initiative, since about 2000, has worked with the conservation groups ForestEthics Solutions, Greenpeace and the Sierra club to hammer out recommendations they forwarded to government and First Nations to formally negotiate how to balance ecological values of the region against timber and economic values for forestry dependent communities.

The prize, Jeffery said, is an agreement that preserves 85 per cent of the region’s forests, but also confirms the industry’s access to a working forest.

The region produces mainly hemlock, fir and cedar timber, Jeffery said, including hemlock suitable to make high-value dimensional timbers for the Japanese post-and-beam home construction market and appearance-grade cedar products.

It is also a living agreement, Jeffery said. Licensees have annual reporting requirements and there is a five-year check and then 10-year review built in to measure progress and make revisions.