2 Years Since the Major Galilee Fires, Rehabilitation Combined with Research brings new opportunity

The bare patches on the slopes of the Naftali Mountains above Kiryat Shmona are now dotted with large plots of new and varied broad-leaved natural woodland trees.

June 25, 2008 14:27
2 Years Since the Major Galilee Fires, Rehabilitation Combined with Research brings new opportunity

forest 224 kkl. (photo credit: )

Almost two years have passed since the Galilee forests were ablaze and thousands of dunam of decades-old woodland were blackened by the flames ignited by the Second Lebanese War. Nevertheless, the scale of damage caused to landscapes and the environment in the Naftali Mountains, Biria Forest and all the other areas of forest and natural woodland that were almost completely destroyed, is equaled by the scale of the opportunity available for changing the face of the monotonous pinewoods through a combination of swift action and practical research. KKL-JNF's Afforestation Division took the initiative and planters set out almost simultaneously with young scientists from Israeli universities who "stormed" the area. The results can already be seen. KKL-JNF's contractors will soon be chopping down the last 200 dunam (about 50 acres) of burned accessible forest. Aviram Zuk, Director of the Upper Galilee Region, reported that of 9,000 dunam (about 2,250 acres) of burned woodland (1,500 dunam in Biria Forest and 7,500 dunam in the Naftali Mountains) 5,000 dunam have already been felled. The remaining area is either inaccessible or consists of young trees, which are not worth cutting down for economic reasons. These results are reviewed by the Afforestation Division during periodic tours conducted by a committee of experts formed for the purpose of rehabilitating the burned Galilee forests. The first of these tours took place shortly after the fires in the north had died down, under the guidance of Afforestation Division Director, Dr. Zvi Avni. On the third tour, which was conducted last week, staff members of the Afforestation Division were accompanied by a varied group of scientists: some were old hands with great experience, while others were youngsters engaged in a series of experiments to determine how the Galilee forests of the future will look. A New Reality in the Forest Two years after the fires a new reality is revealed. Almost all the burned trees have been cut down, and KKL-JNF foresters have left standing only a few small copses or even, in some cases, individual trees that still have partly green foliage at their tops, despite having been badly damaged otherwise. Two years on, this decision has proved to be correct as the trees' foliage is re-growing, despite severe damage sustained. The bare patches on the slopes of the Naftali Mountains above Kiryat Shmona are now dotted with large plots of new and varied broad-leaved natural woodland trees, cypress trees and a number of varieties of pine tree. In the burned areas different pine tree are sprouting from the seeds that ants and rodents missed and are taking root on their own. Over 3,000 dunam of burned forest have been re-planted; the remainder of the area will be left to regenerate by itself and the results of this regeneration are already plain to see. In this area the foresters have been taking steps to prevent over-germination and within a year or two they will be drastically thinning by uprooting excess seedlings. At a later stage the re-growing trees will also have to be pruned. Dr. Omri Boneh, Director of KKL-JNF's Northern Region, together with Regional Director Aviram Zuk, led the large group of experts and researchers to a lookout point that provides a view of the improved scenic route along the slopes of the Naftali Mountains. Dr. Boneh indicated the large bare patches left behind by the woodcutters and told his companions: "These areas have been planted with patches of natural woodland trees: oaks, almond trees, Judas trees (Cercis siliquastrum), and terebinths. Around the Menara cable car a large area has been planted for the first time with Lebanon cedars. This is a 'southerly departure' for this variety of cedar, which now grow with Atlas cedars that were planted in parts of Biria Forest after the fires. We are charting the regeneration processes of the Brutia pine and the Jerusalem pine (Pinus halepensis) and we have found that the stone pine (Pinus pinea) also damaged in fires near Kibbutz Kfar Giladi, is regenerating and sprouting afresh, albeit not at the same rate as the Brutia and Jerusalem varieties." The major fires have also demonstrated that planting cypresses in controlled strips can temporarily prevent the spread of fires, as cypress trees are less vulnerable to burning. The participants in the tour were able to observe this for themselves as they confronted a long avenue of cypresses that stood, still green, amid the scorched forest to the south of the Menara cliff cable car. "We shall use cypresses as firebreaks in the future. We have to bear in mind that in every Mediterranean forest a major fire breaks out about once in every twenty-five years, and so, when we rehabilitate the forest, we have to pay due attention to improved fire prevention measures." An Ecological Survey and Research Immediately after the Second Lebanese War an ecological survey was carried out along the entire length of the Naftali Mountain Ridge, the results of which provide a complete picture of the natural wealth of the forests and the variety of local fauna and flora. As a result of the survey KKL-JNF is preserving large concentrations of the Lortet iris around the midway station of the Menara cliff cable car, which was destroyed in the fire and has now been completely rebuilt. A special effort was made to plant trees along the route of the cable car, to make the area green again as quickly as possible. The research underway at the site on an initial three-year basis focuses on several topics, all of which are designed to explore the main issue: the influence of the fires and the effect of the felling of the 7,500 dunam of burned trees on both the spontaneous and the planned renewal of the forest. There are extensive tracts of land in which hundreds and thousands of pine seedlings have germinated on every dunam, whereas in other places there is less germination. In both cases it is necessary to establish a policy on three issues: 1) whether or not to leave the fast-growing pine seedlings in place 2) To determine the number of seedlings per unit of area 3) Comparison between broad-leaved trees, whose rate of growth is slower than that of pines KKL-JNF has invested money and effort in spraying the areas slated for woodland planting with preparations to prevent pine-tree germination. However, this method turned out to be unsatisfactory as better results are obtained by digging or uprooting. At this stage, apart from suppressing germination, the areas slated for natural regeneration have been left as they are, and the policy on thinning trees that have germinated, will be determined in the years to come, in accordance with the rate of growth and the density of the young trees. On the other hand, because of the low rainfall levels of the last two years, the woodland saplings had to be sustained with irrigation for the first year after planting. In the course of the past year KKL-JNF forestry workers in the Galilee Panhandle have carried some 1,500 tons of water up the steep slopes of the Naftali Mountains in order to water each sapling once a week by filling up the protective plastic sleeve that serves as each young tree's private greenhouse. The plots used for research into the renewal process of the burned forest under the supervision of Dr Yagil Osem of the Volcani Institute were set aside among thousands of burned dunam of the magnificent Biria Forest. Four basic sets of conditions relating to natural regeneration are being studied simultaneously: 1) An area containing burned trees 2) An area containing damaged trees that have put out new leaves 3) An area in which all the trees have been cut down 4) An area of forest that has remained undamaged and where no trees have been felled During the preparatory stage carpets of pine needles were removed from small subsidiary plots within each of the principal areas. The Volcani Institute researchers are dealing with three main issues: identification of the species of plants that grow in each type of area; counting the pine seedlings; and collecting and weighing the shed pine needles. The interim findings of the research show that the most widespread germination of pine seedlings in burned areas - an average of 1.55 seedlings per square meter - took place in areas where no trees had been felled. In areas that had remained undamaged by fire and in which no felling had taken place the average annual germination rate (for the winter of 2007) was 2.2 seedlings per square meter. Special attention was paid to the Brutia variety of pine tree, which is more resistant to cottony cushion scale (Icerya purchasi), that has seriously damaged trees in the Shaar HaGai area in the past. Felling extensive areas of woodland means bringing in heavy mechanical equipment and dragging the logs to a work area where they can be sawed into pieces. The sawing and, especially, the shredding of the thin burned branches required ecological solutions to be found for the disposal of the shredded material. This is where one of the pieces of research conducted by the Tel Aviv University's Plant Sciences Department came into the picture. Tzafnat Gal, a researcher in the field in the course of her MA studies, gave an account of research designed to encourage areas covered with pulverized branches to grow a fungus that gradually decomposes the wood and returns its components to the ground, thereby restoring some of the fire-damaged soil's fertility. It is a lengthy process, but the assumption is that the wood chips, in conjunction with two varieties of microscopic mushroom, will contribute to the fertility of the soil and provide it with a temporary covering to protect it from increased erosion. As far as erosion is concerned, the research team led by Dr Leah Wittenberg, in conjunction with the Israel Water Authority, is also bringing results, despite the fact that the reduced rainfall last year actually put a stop to the research. Areas for research into erosion were selected within the general research areas on the bare slopes of Biria Forest. Large signs posted by KKL-JNF at the sides of the forest paths request visitors to refrain from entering the research areas to prevent the introduction of artificial changes liable to disrupt the entire experiment. Global Warming and Goldfish The professional debates among the experts who sit on the committee persisted throughout the entire day of the tour. One of the more lively discussions dealt with the need to consider the realities of global warming when determining the optimal number of trees per unit area. More trees means increased competition for a steadily decreasing amount of precipitation (here, too, there is still disagreement as to whether or not the situation today is different from that of decades ago). Fewer trees mean more water for each tree; consequently, a sparse forest will have a greater capacity for survival in arid conditions and drought. However, there is not, as yet, any scientific index for the ideal distribution of the various types of woodland tree per unit area in the various climate zones. And, of course, there are other questions, whose answers are the foundation for the basic premises of KKL-JNF's forestry planners. The main question is what purposes the forest is supposed to serve. Is it a public amenity? Or is it intended to conserve nature and the countryside? The answer is complex, and is linked to both demographic and geographical factors. Most forests serve a combination of both purposes, but the experts are in agreement on one basic principle: Israel's forests, unlike those of Europe and America, are not designed to provide wood for industrial use. The tons of wood for industrial use removed from the burned forests are of financial value, but this is a fringe benefit in comparison with the forest's other qualities. In the course of their tour the committee members made a number of odd incidental discoveries, of which the most bizarre was the presence of goldfish in Galilee springs, for example at Ein Kobi in Biria Forest, or at Ein HaRo`im on the slopes of the Naftali Mountains. It seems that an anonymous hand has been slipping goldfish into the small pools formed by the springs, which are surrounded by glorious green vegetation. Aviram Zuk suggests that ultra-orthodox Jews from Galilee communities may be using the goldfish to determine whether or not the water from these springs is suitable for use as a mikveh: "The fact that the goldfish are alive is a sign that the water is pure," explained Aviram during the visit to Biria Forest. When all is said and done, the sights of the tour can be summed up in the Biblical quotation: "For there is hope of a tree" (Job 14:7). Sponsored Content

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