Helping nature to help itself

Let nature do the main work; plan only in areas where there is no prospect of tree renewal.

September 21, 2006 07:51
Helping nature to help itself

jnf 88. (photo credit: )


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When sirens wailed throughout the north of Israel this summer, residents' first reaction was to find shelter. The next was to tune in to the nearest radio or TV and find out what had happened. When it was announced that "rockets fell on empty land," we breathed a sigh of relief that there were no casualties or damage to property. Only now are we absorbing the fact that the rockets that fell on empty land destroyed up to 65,000 dunams (16,000 acres) of forests and grazing fields, according to the JNF-KKL. Rolling Galilee hills and the slopes of the Golan have been denuded of the lush vegetation and forests that protected the soil, provided shade and recreation and beautified the landscape. Rockets fell in forests, vineyards, orchards and open fields causing fires, so that the surrounding landscape not destroyed by the flames was blackened by soot and ash. The cost to the environment is devastating, and some experts estimate that it will take up to 60 years to recover. But Prof. Zev Naveh of the Haifa Technion, who has spent a lifetime in the study of afforestation, says that we should learn from the history of evolution of human cultural landscape from the Pleistocene (1.8 million to 12,000 years ago) to the present day that controlled fire can be friendly to the environment. Naveh urges the afforestation authorities not to plough in with heavy equipment and clear the fire-damaged landscape but rather carefully assess where and whether there is any possibility of spontaneous regrowth. He says there is a three-year window of opportunity when the burnt landscape can use the cleansing effects of fire and mineral replenishment in the soil before removing and replanting. In collaboration with Prof. Arthur Lieberman, professor emeritus of Cornell University now living in Haifa, Naveh has prepared a list of recommendations for JNF-KKL entitled "Restoration of the burned forests in Galilee." Simply put, his message is: Let nature do the main work; plan only in areas where there is no prospect of tree renewal. Professor emeritus of the Technion's Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Division of Agriculture, Naveh, 85, continues his life's work and dedication to the landscape of Israel from his state-of-the-art home office on the peak of the Carmel in Haifa. Born in Amsterdam, Naveh grew up in Germany, where he already knew of the Jewish National Fund and had a Blue Box in the family home. He immigrated to the Holy Land in 1935 at the age of 15 with the Zionist Pathfinder youth movement, spent his early years on kibbutz, and was a founder of Kibbutz Metzuba in the western Galilee in 1938. As a true pioneer, he and his comrades prepared the rocky slopes for cultivation. Copying the methods of the Israelite tribes of 5,000 years ago, they removed the dense shrub cover and rock outcrops and used them to construct terraces. He also worked as a shepherd and in cattle breeding for milk and meat production. In his attachment to the rocky Mediterranean hill and mountain landscape, he appreciated the natural and cultural assets and long human history of co-evolution. "I also understood that this was a science," says Naveh. He went on to earn an MSc. degree in agronomy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and was a teacher and researcher in landscape and restoration ecology at the Technion's Lowdermilk Faculty of Agricultural Engineering from 1965. Naveh's work took him traveling to share his expertise and learn a holistic approach incorporating integrative methods, transcending the frontiers of natural sciences into social sciences, humanities and arts. He spent three years in Africa advising on forestry development with the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization in a program initiated by Golda Meir. During this time, his team influenced the coffee growers there to protect their soil by planting grass and legumes, which in turn were used to feed the cattle. In the late 1950s he was a visiting research fellow at Berkeley's school of forestry and was impressed by California's example of using controlled, prescribed burning of brush canopy while saving certain tree species from fire. Naveh was inspired by icons in the field such as professors Harold Biswell and Arnold Schultz, whom he later brought to lecture at the Technion; Prof. Robert Whittaker, a giant in vegetation ecology; and Prof. Eugene Odum of the University of Georgia, a pioneer of ecosystem ecology. "Fire serves as an important link in recycling nutrients to the soil," says Naveh, referring to Odum's work and observations that after burning, annual grasses and flowers emerge. Naveh brought the fruits of his travels back to Israel and was the first teacher of ecology at Tel Aviv University. Even in his pre-academic days at Metzuba, he observed post-fire regeneration of herbaceous and woody vegetation. And as early as 1951, he started research on fire ecology as pasture and range research scientist at the Ya'ar experimental station. He noted that during the first years after a fire when the land is at its most vulnerable, animal grazing was detrimental to the reseeded grasses. In the 1970s he studied the cultural landscape of Mount Carmel, an area that itself has seen the ravages of fire - sometimes by arson, other times set off by careless picnickers. In 1999, the Journal of Mediterranean Ecology published his paper entitled "The Role of Fire As an Evolutional Ecological Factor on the Landscapes of Mount Carmel." Referring to the Pleistocenes, where fire played an important role in the co-evolution of the Paleolithic food-gatherers and hunters, he observed that fire served as a driving force in the domestication of agricultural plants. In his study, Naveh berates the recent planting of highly flammable pine forests but, nevertheless, reports on the great regeneration capacities of the Mediterranean woody and herbaceous vegetation, and root re-sprouting and seed germination after fire. Naveh's research collaborator, Prof. Arthur Lieberman, met Naveh in the late 1960s at Cornell, where Lieberman is professor emeritus of physical and environmental quality. After three sabbatical visits to Haifa, the Liebermans immigrated to Israel in 1987 and Haifa was their choice of home. "It's a very special city," says Lieberman, who taught for three years in the Geography Department at the University of Haifa and serves as resident director of the Cornell Abroad program. In retirement since 1987, Naveh says that his mission is to raise awareness of the need for a problem-solving oriented trans-disciplinary approach to ease the transition from the industrial to post-industrial global information age. Ahead of his time, Naveh has addressed the problems of encroachment on the landscape by industry and population growth. Far from rejecting the advances of civilization, his life's work has been to protect the landscape with appropriate human management. Among his many publications and works relating to his vision of an environmental revolution is the 1984 book co-written with Lieberman and updated in 1994, Landscape Ecology: Theory and Application. An anthology of his essays and studies of over 40 years is soon to be published in the Springer Landscape Series. Throughout the work of these two experts runs the principle of renewal and restoration, preservation and adaptation. Discussing the history of afforestation in Israel, Lieberman talks of a trial proposed by Naveh and adopted by JNF-KKL in the Ahihud forest in western Galilee, where there was a departure from standard practice of planting pine trees. "In Italy, pines are known as match sticks," he says. "Now there is a trend to a multi-purpose, multi-faced, multi-layered approach to afforestation." Lieberman explains why pines were so popular in the past. "They grow fast and give shade, and it was the right motivation for the time." He adds that the first foresters in Israel were Swiss - and what suits Switzerland is not necessarily right for this part of the Mediterranean. "A forest is not just timber," notes Naveh. "It is recreation and soil restoration." Indeed, education about fire prevention and litter control is needed for the population who enjoys the forests' picnic areas and adventure playgrounds. While the nation is dismayed at the destruction of the countryside in the North, this writer notes that often, when we take our family on a picnic in the Carmel forests, we have to clean up the mess of discarded bottles, cans, plastic and other unmentionables before we can safely allow our children to play. Returning to their document of recommendations for dealing with the recent uncontrolled fires in the Galilee and their impact on the environment, the two experts discuss the amazing adaptation of nature to fire. But the challenge is how human agents work to harness that adaptation - or whether their fire-fighting methods and replanting will literally add fuel to the flames. "I have the most profound admiration for those who endangered their lives to try to save forests and woodlands from the teeth of the fires," says Naveh. He also pays tribute to JNF-KKL and all the volunteers who aided the fire-fighting. However, the damage is not irreversible and it is now in the hands of JNF-KKL and the Nature and Parks Authority to act with discretion and ecological reasoning. "Eventually we may even see some benefit in rehabilitating the damaged land into richer and more diverse forests that are less flammable and more suited to the local conditions," says Naveh. Shrubs and trees can regenerate from buds. Oaks and pistachios, laurel and olive trees, which have deep roots, survive even if above ground they look charred beyond redemption. Even pines regenerate; the cones explode and distribute new seeds. According to these recommendations, further disturbance to the ecosystem in the vulnerable first three years after fire may indeed inflict irreversible damage. Standard practice of complete clearance and replanting should only be carried out if there is truly no prospect of renewal below as well as above ground. The continuing message is diversify. The experience of the eucalyptus shows that while they are not as flammable initially, they burn at a higher temperature and produce more heat, which in itself prevents renewal. And the two conclude: Let nature exploit the great renewal potential of native trees acquired over thousands of years. Conduct a thorough survey to ensure that the process is not harmed through removal of trunks or clearing of scorched areas with heavy equipment. Avoid grazing of burnt shrub lands because, along with the old undergrowth, goats will choose the tasty new buds as they appear in that vulnerable period. Treading carefully through the wounded landscape and exploiting nature to renew is the speediest, most efficient and least expensive way for primary rehabilitation and ensured ecological and landscape values. The second stage is to plant with diversity, introducing multi-purpose herbs, medicinal and perfume plants, and trees that are compatible with the region's ecology. The two experts are convinced that the people and landscape will recover from this period of despair and helplessness. "Not only the forestry authorities are needed for this work, but the entire caring population can participate," says Lieberman, referring to "green" volunteers and the recruitment of school groups. In light of the years of research and fieldwork done by these experts, it appears that nature has a lot of work to do. Humans, however well motivated, should sometimes stand by and see what nature can do before intervening.

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