(photo credit: KKL-JNF)
On Thursday, January 26, scientists and foresters participating in the Climate Change and Forest Fires Conference organized by KKL-JNF, in cooperation with the Ministry of Environmental Protection, visited the Carmel Forest. KKL-JNF Chief Forester David Brand welcomed the participants, many who came from around the world, and provided professional background information during the tour.
The group was greeted at a site overlooking Nahal Bustan by KKL-JNF Northern Region Director Dr. Omri Boneh, who reviewed the chain of events from the day the fire broke out in December 2010 until its containment four days later: "Today, one year later, we realize that although the fire inflicted terrible damage, not to mention loss of life, there are also opportunities in every catastrophe. For example, the fire exposed ancient agricultural terraces that nobody paid any attention to until now. In the future, bringing back this region's original landscapes will be a major priority for us. After the fire, a decision was made not to begin restoration efforts for an entire year in order to allow nature to take its course, and accordingly, we only began rehabilitation efforts a few weeks ago. Whatever the case, we have our hands full here for the next few years."One of the major questions we need to address is the issue of tree density per dunam, and we are conducting a number of experiments in different areas with varying numbers of trees. If there's a lot of space between the trees, all sorts of indigenous small trees, shrubs and perennials will sprout. The more extreme the treatment, the greater the risk of invasion in those areas that were drastically opened, and the greater the competition for water and sunlight between the different plants. One of the ways to deal with this is controlled grazing. At any rate, these are some of the issues we are dealing with, and one of the main lessons we have learned is that the forest doesn't always behave according to the book."
Professor Avi Perevolotsky of the Agricultural Research Organization observed that "you have to decide how desirable it is to intervene, and then another major question is whether you have the resources to do so. Forest care needs to strike a balance between these two considerations." Clil Adar, director of the Forestry Department of KKL-JNF's Northern Region, added that "we have to wait and see what develops in the forest over time. I suggest you all come back in a few years to see what comes up."
The next stop was near the Carmel Forest Hotel, where the courageous efforts of KKL-JNF's firefighters helped stopped the fire's advance. Dr. Boneh noted that "before the fire, we suggested to the hotel management that they allow grazing in the areas bordering the hotel. They refused, since they didn't want their guests to see and smell the cows and goats. I have a feeling that now they might change their minds."
Professor Perevolotsky told the guests that in two weeks, Israel would be celebrating Tu Bishvat, the Jewish tree holiday: "When the first Zionist pioneers arrived in Israel, they found a barren land and denuded hills. KKL-JNF decided to change that, and since then, over 240million trees have been planted, and Israel's natural woodlands have been restored. Tree planting was always a treasured and precious experience for every Israeli child. Now, in addition to planting trees wherever it is still possible, we also need help thinning out the many pine seedlings that are coming up everywhere as a result of the fire, something volunteers will be helping us accomplish in the future."
Dr. Dan Malkinson of Haifa University led the group up the Nahal Oren streambed, where he spoke about fires and soil displacement: "Most of the discussion during the conference has focused on our response to the recent fire. I would like to point out that there have been repeated fires in this region and this demands a different management approach. We have been researching the soil erosion rate, which increases as a result of forest fires. Tolerable soil loss is defined as the amount of soil that can be regenerated, which is only about 5%. Since the soil here is relatively shallow, damage is less than it could have been if the soil were deeper, but still, when there was a major rain event here ten days ago, we had the highest soil discharge since the 1960s."
Hugh Safford of the USDA Forest Service from California commented that in the United States, they would immediately intervene to prevent soil erosion in such a case, "since this streambed runs towards a road and a flash flood could theoretically wash the road away. What we probably would do is cover the area with straw," he noted. A lively debate ensued about whether events that may or may not happen once every fifty years should be taken into consideration. How should these decisions be made? Is it an economical question, that is, how much would treatment cost over a period of time as compared to rebuilding a road maybe once in a century? Or should nature be allowed to take its course? There are not always clear answers to these questions.
The group stopped at a site where there was a clear view of Beit Oren, a kibbutz that used to be surrounded by pine trees and was now exposed for the first time. "What would have happened," Prof. Perevolotsky asked, "if KKL-JNF foresters had approached the residents of Beit Oren two weeks before the fire and told the people that they want to cut down the trees around their homes in order to create a fuel break and protect their houses from forest fires? Even today, KKL-JNF foresters are not welcome when they come with similar requests. These are some of the issues we have to deal with."
Near the Mishmar Hacarmel Farm, Dr. Boneh showed the group a huge area of the forest that had been burnt. "Do you see that patch of green pine trees in the middle of all the burnt trees?" Dr. Boneh asked. "One of the reasons that they survived is because those trees were planted by KKL-JNF and were pruned and thinned over the years. This highlights the importance of maintenance and treatment for forest fire prevention."
Professor Jon E. Keeley of the University of California, Los Angeles, was on his third professional visit to Israel: "I was also here in 1989 after the Carmel fire that broke out then. I recently published a book on the ecological impacts and history of wildfires in Mediterranean climate ecosystems. I have found that there is a common bond between scientists and forest managers in the Mediterranean region. Every three or four years we have a conference where people come together to discuss shared topics. I was very impressed by the decision not to begin rehabilitation work for the first year after the fire. In North America, the foresters want to start planting right away."
Stephen Achal, an astrophysicist from Calgary, Canada, who is the Chief Scientist of Itres Research Limited, is an expert in high spatial resolution airborne mapping of wildfires. "That's a long name," he laughed, "but I think this technology could be helpful in preventing forest fires in Israel, even though the scale here is radically different. In Northern Canada, we recently had a fire that burned an area of a half a million hectares over a period of two and a half months. Nature, however, has a way of renewing itself. I recently visited Antarctica, where I saw that higher temperatures caused green algae to grow on the snow and ice. The amazing thing is that this algae consumes huge amounts of carbon dioxide, which we have too much of in the atmosphere. It was very moving to see this, because one realizes how nature is devising ways of healing itself."
Dr. Orna Reisman-Berman is an Israeli research scientist who is now in the fifth year of a research project funded by KKL-JNF: "I study the sustainability of Tabor Oak forests in the presence of cattle gazing and forest fire regeneration and recovery. Sometimes trees re-sprout after a fire from the ground, which is known as basal area re-sprouting, and sometimes from their upper branches, which is called canopy re-sprouting. KKL-JNF is a full partner to my research not only because they fund it, but also because KKL-JNF personnel help me in the field and support every facet of my work. It is thanks to KKL-JNF that Israel is not only covered by forests, but that these forests are cared for in a dynamic manner that takes changing realities into consideration. It's a pleasure working with them!"
A review of conference proceedings and summaries of the presentations will be forwarded in the next few days.
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