It is 37Âº centigrade in the shade. Down below, the city of Kiryat Shemona is as hot as can be, but there is no shade on the mountain overlooking it. Two KKL-JNF employees are climbing the mountain, moving a water pipe connected to a container between tender saplings planted in protective shafts that help them grow upright, watering each little plant with maximum care. This is the scene one sees these days on many of the slopes of the Upper Galilee, where fires lit by Hizbullah missiles raged only a year ago, during the Second Lebanese War.
Here, in the Galilee, a determined struggle to heal the scars of the war is being waged, with the help of friends of KKL-JNF throughout Israel and worldwide. The campaign began before hostilities had even ceased, as self-sacrificing KKL-JNF workers joined hands with local fire fighters and residents of the region to stop the fire from consuming forests decades old. "What happened here when the war ended was simply an unprecedented phenomenon.
Thousands of volunteers made their way here: - Israelis at first, and afterwards, groups and individuals from all over the world, in order to help save the damaged forests. My estimate is that 15,000 volunteers worked in the forests in the first months after the Second Lebanon War, excluding 30,000 more, who came up to the Galilee specifically around TuBishvat to plant new trees," according to Aviram Zuk, KKL-JNF regional director.
A year has passed since the flames destroyed 12,000 dunam of forests and natural woodlands - 750,000 trees - in Galilee, but the work of cutting down the burnt pine trees on the slopes of the mountains still continues, along with the planting of new trees in the areas that were already cleared. On the slopes of the Naftali mountain range or in Biriya Forest, the tree seedlings can already be seen peeking out of their planting-shafts. 75,000 new seedlings have already been planted in the area, and in the future, they will bring the color green back to the burnt slopes.
This time, however, the forest is being restored with a change in its composition. Today, one sees more broadleaf tree seedlings, such as different types of oaks, terebinths, birch and Judas trees, alongside fruit trees like olive, almond, berry and others. KKL-JNF foresters plant pine and cedars along the forest roads that serve visitors and hikers, since they grow faster than other species and will help restore the green.
In a few years, the forest landscape in Galilee will also include the cedar tree. Small groves of two species of cedar trees have grown in Biriya Forest for about forty-five years. Today, on the slopes of Nahal Navoriya, which were stripped bare after the giant fire that raged there, 4000 young cedar seedlings have been planted, which, in future, will add a new dimension to the renewed forest. The seeds of the cedars are imported to Israel from Turkey, Greece, France and Spain, since there is a lack of seed-producing cedars in Israel (due to their relatively young age).
In the arid Israeli climate, the cedars need to be helped by irrigation for them to acclimate, so a drip-irrigation network to water the thousands of young cedars was laid down. "We will continue watering the seedlings over the first few years, as long as the irrigation system remains functional," says Yossi Karni, forester of the Biriya Forests block. "We are also watering the new broadleaf seedlings once a month, in order to help them acclimate during the hot summer. All our field tests show that the seedlings are acclimating excellently, and about 90% have taken root and are growing rapidly."
At the same time, nature is also busy, and in large burnt regions, most of which have not yet been cut down, it is already possible to see new growths of Jerusalem and Cyprus pines whose seeds are sprouting by the thousands. "When a forest is burnt, all the pine cones on the trees open up and distribute their seeds. We are now facing a problem that we will have to deal with over coming years: massive sprouting of pines in all the burnt areas," says Shimon Algrabli, Mount Naftali forester. "1500-2000 trees are sprouting per dunam, and they will have to be extensively thinned over the first years."
The steep slope of the Naftali mountain range, above the site of the Manara Cliff cable car, is totally burnt. Only one year ago, there was a green forest here that crowned the landscape and the unique tourist and cable car site, which provides a livelihood for tens of families from Upper Galilee. Today, from the window of the office of the site director, Avshalom Tzadok, there is a view of the burnt forest, which is a sad reminder of what transpired here only a year ago. This slope will not be replanted, as it will be totally left to the forest's natural renewal processes.
We visited the site on Sunday, when Manara Cliff returned to fulltime operations for the first time since the war, and we found the employees full of optimism: "For us, the war is only ending now, and from now on, it depends on us to do some hard marketing and selling to bring the visitors back here. Our only wish at the present time is to keep working at getting the color green back, because it is the perfect color for our main message to the general public: coexistence with the magnificent scenery while protecting the environment. This is what the Manara Cliff site is all about, and this is what our guides are taught - with help from KKL-JNF."
Avshalom (55), an economist who lives in Kiryat Shemona, changes his down-to-earth tone when he recalls the days of the war and the fire that raged at the site and around it: "It really warmed my heart to see the KKL-JNF fire-fighting teams going into action together with the site's workers and the Kiryat Shemona and regional firemen. It was a fight for every tree, to save the forest and prevent heavy damage to the site and to the cable car, which is the longest in Israel. Unfortunately, despite everyone's efforts, everything was severely damaged. It was only yesterday that we got everything working again."
Avshalom Tzadok told us that he has enjoyed close strategic collaboration with KKL-JNF in the northern region over the past five years, as the site is a scenic nature spot that serves hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. Together they developed trails for hikers and cyclists, together they conduct learning activities in the natural woodlands, and together they develop scenic lookouts and bring visitors closer to nature. The renewal after the fire that raged in the area a year ago opened up possibilities of additional development and improvement plans around the site, with KKL-JNF contributing its experience and know-how in landscape rehabilitation for public benefit.
The massive effort to heal the scars of the last war in the Galilee can be seen beyond the area of the forest itself. North of Kiryat Shemona, at the Hiram Division army camp, better known as "Gibor Camp," a carefully tended meeting corner with benches, shaded enclosures and ornamental flora was built thanks to a KKL-JNF friend from Florida, USA.
Every evening, even on hot days like these, soldiers from the army base use it as a place for social get-togethers, and the spot quickly became an object of envy for the Kiryat Shemona city fathers. As Senior Major Golan Ohana (40), commander of the base, says: "After I saw what friends of KKL-JNF had done at other army bases, I had a fantasy that one day we would also be able to build such a special corner here."
The donor wanted the meeting corner to be without any fences. 'People cannot be educated by fences,' he told us. And look, the site is a reality, and since last week, it has municipal lighting at night. The shade enclosures and the garden create an ambience that has made this spot into my soldiers' main hangout for off-duty socializing. And on the weekends, when the families come, it's just one big party."
Yossi Karni, the "sheriff" of Biriya Forest, walks the Biriya Forest dirt trails in the middle of the intense summer heat. He points to the few cypress and pine trees that survived the huge fire that destroyed 800 dunam of a forest tens of years old: "These cypress trees seemed totally burnt right after the fire. Look at them now, they are alive and the color green is returning to the higher branches. We marked every tree that had even a drop of green in its upper branches, and they weren't cut down. It turns out that we were right; they are alive and gradually recuperating. You have to remember that in spite of the drawbacks, Jerusalem pines will always be a part of the scenery.
Israel has a million dunam of pines, with millions of trees. The pine tree distributes its seeds, and they sprout and proliferate in the natural woodlands. Of course they need to be thinned out in time; things have to be under control. But one also has to compare the situation today with British air photos from 1945, in which you see the areas of Tzfat and Biriya totally barren of any trees. For hundreds of years trees were cut down and there was very intense over-grazing. The local residents simply did not allow the vegetation to take root. Today, the trees are here to stay and they will be a part of the scenery forever."
One year after the Second Lebanon War, KKL-JNF's footprints can be seen everywhere. Bomb shelters in many villages along the Lebanese border have been renovated by young volunteers from abroad, who came to help under KKL-JNF auspices. Various forms of equipment for the benefit of local residents, especially for children, were constructed in villages such as Moshav Avivim, thanks to friends of KKL-JNF.
Educational activities in the framework of the Maof program, which is jointly run by KKL-JNF and the local authorities, were also renewed, this time in the town of Hatzor Hagalilit. New scenic lookouts, most of them commemorating soldiers who fell in the last war, are in the stages of planning and construction at centrally located scenic observation points, which offer views of Galilee and Mount Hermon in all their majesty.
Over the last few months, three scientific studies have been conducted in the region to determine the extent of the damage caused by the forest fires and ways to repair it. The studies address restoration of the flora and fauna, methods of treating land erosion in the damaged areas, changes in the chemical composition of the rainwater that flows down the slopes, and long-range tracking of the natural renewal processes. Three teams of researchers are working in the huge damaged areas, in which there is still a lot of work to be done cutting down thousands of tree-trunks still standing dead in the burnt-out forests.