The lush woodlands of Northern Ontario have long been the vested interest of both the forestry and tourism industries. But their relationship has, at times, been as prickly as pine needles and as sticky as spruce sap.
The province's newly formulated resource stewardship agreement (RSA) process is designed to improve that relationship by recognizing both parties as financial stakeholders on the land. In addition, this agreement calls for the two industries to negotiate mutually acceptable contracts before wood is harvested or roads are built into woodlands.
"(The agreement) is a collaborative process, and it's one which emphasizes interest-based negotiations rather than having the two parties sparring at each other across the table in a quasi-judicial forum," says Stephen Harvey, senior policy adviser for the Ministry of Natural Resources. "(It is) like a request for an environmental assessment (from the tourist operator), or another dispute resolution process."
The memorandum of understanding, which sets the stage for individual RSAs to be negotiated, was signed in July 2001. It applies to all woodlands licensed to forest products companies in Ontario.
"We have six forest management plans which are starting to be developed and will be approved by April 1, 2003," Harvey says.
"It is that process of developing a plan which triggers the commitment by the forest industry to invite the tourist industry to negotiate a resource stewardship agreement."
Individual parties can determine the length of their RSAs, but must agree to at least a five-year term. The recently signed memorandum of understanding is a guide tourist outfitters can use to negotiate a resource stewardship agreement with a forest company.
"(The memorandum) is a template that, if followed, should end up producing a workable agreement for both parties," says Michael Hay, a forest planning management specialist for the Ministry of Natural Resources.
Under the terms of the memorandum of understanding, the tourist outfitter and forest company, who share a particular woodland, will meet to develop a proposal for forest management to take place. That proposal becomes part of a forest management plan, which is then reviewed by any concerned members of the public.
Groups of tourist operators in one region may opt to combine to create a joint RSA with a forest company. Following public consultation, the agreement must meet MNR approval before coming into effect as a legally binding document.
Forest companies have always been required to consult tourist operators before harvesting on shared land, but were not always held strictly accountable to those verbal agreements, says Harvey. Such discussions often took the form of informal public open houses, and any resulting agreements did not bear the authority of the MNR.
Concerns arising from those discussions with the tourist operators and members of the public would be taken into consideration by the forest company as it developed its forest management plan. Such plans have long been prerequisites for cutting any trees in Ontario, and can cost up to $500,000 to prepare.
"There are about 60 plans prepared across the forests of Ontario every five years," Harvey says. A forest management plan runs on a five-year cycle.
Traditionally, if a group or an individual was not satisfied with the terms of the forest management plan, they could request, from the minister of the environment, an environmental assessment of that plan.
Though the request for such an assessment might not be granted, the process would cause delays and result in extra costs to forest companies by frustrating the forest management planners who need to plan roads and access timber.
The tourism industry also felt they were losing their land base to forestry and the encroachment of all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles. In particular, the operators who aimed to offer a remote or near-remote wilderness experience felt their industry was suffering because of the loss of the natural environment.
Tourist outfitters felt their concerns often went unnoticed by the MNR and the forest industry, which seemed to hold the lion's share of political sway, says Bruce Hyer, owner of WildWaters Nature Tours and Expeditions Ltd. and president of the North of Superior Tourism Association in Thunder Bay.
"This process is important because, for the first time, the tourist industry won't be just asking on an ad hoc basis, again and again, for their values to be protected," says Hyer, "But they will actually have a signed contract between the forest company and the tourist operator, indicating what values need protecting, with up to a 20-year plan for protecting them."
Much of the conflict between the two industries has been over how forest companies harvest the woodlands. Of particular concern to outfitters are the maintenance of visual and aural aesthetics, remoteness or the perception of remoteness, and the sustainability of fish, wildlife and other resources, he adds.