Environment: For better or for worse, a changing northern Negev landscape

An SPNI report argues that afforestation with non-native species has damaged ecosystems, but other experts say the forests of the South are a "blessing".

A STRETCH of northern Negev land after Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund afforestation (photo credit: KKL-JNF)
A STRETCH of northern Negev land after Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund afforestation
(photo credit: KKL-JNF)
Tree planting in areas of the northern Negev that were never before home to wooded landscapes has disrupted the region’s natural habitats, according to a report released by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.
Titled “Ecological Effects of Afforestation in the Northern Negev,” the report was released in recent days in English by SPNI, following an initial Hebrew version in August 2013. Ecological consultant Guy Rotem, Prof.
Amos Bouskila of Ben-Gurion University’s department of life sciences and SPNI’s biodiversity policy coordinator Alon Rothschild explore how afforestation efforts – or the cultivation of land into forest – have changed the lands of the northern Negev.
Acknowledging that they only studied a limited set of taxonomic groups, the authors said they found that naturally occurring reptiles, birds and mammals in these regions have been replaced by other species, and that natural vegetation growth has become less diverse.
The loess plains – soils composed of sand and clay – and steppe shrub lands that characterize both the northern Negev and the South Hebron Hills regions are transitional zones between Mediterranean and desert climates with uniquely diverse populations, the authors explained. Yet they are among the rarest and most threatened habitats in Israel.
Historically, trees were only found in drainage tributaries is these areas, with the majority of the land covered in grasslands and shrubs.
Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael- Jewish National Fund began planting forests in desert areas south of Beersheba in the 1950s, and by the 1980s, began creating “green belt” areas around the Negev, the authors wrote. In 1986, KKL-JNF began employing “savannization” mechanisms, which the fund describes as planting single trees or clusters in areas where the climate does not permit woodlands to grow without substantial intervention.
The introduction of trees, such as Mediterranean species like Jerusalem Pine and non-native species like eucalyptus, have caused damage to the lands on a number of levels, the authors argued.
On a landscape level, the afforestation has changed the flat, steppe landscape to one with vertical structures, with an accelerated fragmentation of natural habitats. Locally, there has been damage to soil surface composition and runoff, and spatially, the Mediterranean and non-native trees are oftentimes growing at the expense of local natural species.
The report went so far as to stress that afforestation activities may be “threatening the extinction of species within the ecosystem,” naming the Dark-Brown Iris and the Beersheba Fringe-Fingered Lizard as two of these species in jeopardy.
Although the law considers many of the species in danger protected wildlife, the enforcement power of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority is limited with regards to the afforestation taking place in these areas, the authors emphasized.
Meanwhile, because these planted forests do not reproduce naturally, they require costly irrigation and care.
“The afforestation activities in the northern Negev constitute a significant threat to the unique biodiversity of the loess plains and steppe shrub lands, while the alleged ‘environmental’ justifications, such as enhancing ecosystem services, are problematic and raise serious doubts,” the authors concluded.
In an appendix to the report, its authors make a variety of recommendations as to how the government should proceed, particularly regarding the regional decision- making processes.
Under National Outline Plan for Forestry 22 (NOP-22), KKL-JNF is required to submit detailed afforestation programs for certain areas to planning authorities.
However, KKL-JNF is also able to plant forests outside NOP-22 areas when the Israel Lands Authority allocates portions of land to the fund for “agricultural activities.”
Planting that occurs through this route does not require detailed plan submissions or applications for building permits, the SPNI report said.
All afforestation in the future, the authors stressed, should comply with the relevant planning laws.
In response to the SPNI report, Prof. Alon Tal, who recently authored the book All the Trees of the Forest: Israel’s Woodlands from the Bible to the Present, said he felt that biodiversity should not be “the sole indicator for evaluating the merits of dryland forestry.”
“I strongly feel that the narrow perspective of SPNI runs counter to the leaders in the field of ecology today,” said Tal, who is also a faculty member of the Ben-Gurion University’s Blaustein Institute of Desert Research and a veteran of Israel’s environmental sector.
Most of the species described as in danger due to the afforestation, such as the Beersheba Fringe-Fingered Lizard, are opportunistic species thriving in a “novel ecosystem” that is the result of soil degradation, Tal argued.
While KKL-JNF has acted with sensitivity when possible and has even tried to spare many habitats, forests may actually be better habitats than the original open spaces.
That being said, Tal voiced agreement with the SPNI report authors regarding the afforestation that KKL-JNF is performing outside NOP-22.
“In my opinion, KKL, as a public agency that is bound by internal policies of transparency and public involvement, should make all of its planting open to public comments prior to implementation, regardless of whether it is in NOP-22 or not,” Tal said.
Tal maintained, however, that the KKL-JNF forests in the South are “a blessing to the Beduin,” who bring 65 percent of their sheep to graze there.
“It is a blessing to the people of Israel, especially in the South, who flock to the forests for recreation,” Tal said.
“We can do more to improve the pollination services in the forests and yes – of course we need to do everything we can to maximize biodiversity.”
In response to the SPNI report, KKL-JNF chief forester Dr. David Brand emphasized how intethe operations his organization performs in the deserts of the northern Negev aim to stop the deterioration of ecosystems and enhance ecological services – such as water and soil conservation, recreation and presence of biodiversity. Like Tal, Brand explained that major threats to the northern Negev have actually resulted from changes in human demography and in land use bringing about land degradation.
“KKL-JNF activity in these areas is intended to prevent the continuation of injurious processes (land degradation) and functionally rehabilitate the damaged areas,” Brand wrote in a formal response on the subject.
Over time, man has used the lands of the northern Negev for a variety of purposes, and the KKL-JNF activities seek to “integrate this mosaic of land uses into a multi-functional cultural landscape,” according to Brand. The ecosystem that has been shaped by man over the years is a “deteriorated system,” damaged by activities like chopping plants, agricultural works and neglect of ancient sites. Meanwhile, due to the development trends and demographic pressures, intensive farming and grazing also sped up the deterioration process in the northern Negev.
“The desertification system in the northern Negev is characterized by a high degree of deterioration that requires taking actions that change the physical interface, so that the system will preserve resources and not lose them,” Brand said.
The SPNI report argued that only mature forests can moderate soil erosion and runoff, adding that mechanical afforestation activities actually accelerate erosion. Brand, however, reiterated that the long-term rehabilitation activities reduce rates of soil erosion, as well as decrease the frequency and intensity of floods in the surrounding areas, citing research from several Israeli academic institutions.
Rehabilitation activities are updated from time to time in accordance with the findings of the research and monitoring programs, in order to design multi-functional landscapes, he added.
“KKL-JNF is implementing sustainable management principles in administering the rehabilitated territories,” Brand concluded. “The rehabilitation processes contribute to increasing the vitality and functioning of the ecosystems.”