The agreement came during a two-day conference in Oslo hosted by Norwegian Rural Affairs Minister Lars Peder Brekk, who made a binding agreement the goal of his country's stint in the leadership of Forest Europe, which has developed pan-European forest sustainability guidelines since 1990.
The guidelines, which promote the conservation of forests and efforts to improve biodiversity, have been voluntary among the 49 nations that embrace them but a legally binding agreement giving them standing as international law has been a long-sought but elusive goal for some in the group.
Calling such a deal a "historical step forward for forests and for a European and global forest policy cooperation," Forest Europe officials said before the conference a deal to seek a binding agreement would "reconfirm (Europe's) political will and ability to lead the way on complex issues of forest management -- to the benefit of people, our environment and the globe."
With some dissent, the goal was reached Wednesday when ministers overseeing their countries' forests officially agreed to launch talks on a binding treaty, the BBC reported.
Some countries, such as Sweden, dissented but signed anyway, saying they wanted the sustainability guidelines to remain voluntary.
Eskil Erlandsson, Sweden's Rural Affairs minister, told the broadcaster a binding agreement isn't needed.
"I do not believe in common legislation for forests across the pan-European region. Put simply, one size does not fit all," he said. "We need to recognize the different geo-climatic and socio-economic conditions."
Brekk, however, said those concerns would have a chance to be ironed out in the negotiations process and that the important thing was to get the talks started.
One of the most vocal supporters of a forest treaty was Poland, whose chief conservation minister, Janusz Zaleski, praised the vote and said Poland would use its upcoming 6-month presidency of the European Union to promote the process.
Support for opening talks on a treaty was bolstered by the release at the conference of comprehensive new report showing European forests have expanded during the last 20 years and are acting as a vital "carbon sink" for greenhouse gases.
"The State of Europe's Forests 2011" indicated there are 2.52 billion acres of forest in Europe, amounting to 25 percent of the world total. Since 1991, the forest area has expanded in all European regions at a rate of 1.97 million acres per year.
Over the same period, the report said, the total growing stock of forests in Europe has increased by 304 billion cubic feet -- equivalent to the total combined growing stock of France, Germany and Poland.
Europe's forests have also become denser, it said.
Meanwhile, the expanding forests are gulping up more carbon dioxide into tree biomass, helping Europe meet greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets.
The report said European forests sequestered about 870 million tons of CO2 per year from 2005-10 -- about 10 percent of the continent's greenhouse gas emissions in 2008.
Backers say a legally binding treaty is needed to deal with challenges Europe's forests face in the future. Efforts to sustain them in the face new demands for wood fuel to meet renewable energy goals will require "significant investments," Forest Europe wrote.
"The challenge is thus to find and deliver the optimum balance among the various forest functions in the context of a changing climate and societal needs."