Slashed and burnt

After suffering unprecedented damage in last summer's Katyusha attacks - and just in time for Tu Bishvat - the North's forests are ready for rehabilitation.

forest fire 88 (photo credit: )
forest fire 88
(photo credit: )
You're darn right, it isn't easy being green. Not when you're standing only kilometers from the Lebanese border. Not when you're within spitting distance of a target as tempting to Hizbullah gunners as the Northern Command headquarters. Not, in other words, when you're a tree in the Biriya forest and Katyusha rockets are raining down all around you, as they did in last summer's war. Some 800 fires were started by the month-long barrage of rockets as they came screaming into the North, destroying 12,000 dunams (3,000 acres) of forest in the process. Together with the adjacent Naftali Ridge, this pastoral crest just north of Safed in the Upper Galilee suffered the most; combined, they accounted for three-quarters of the damaged area. Sixty-year-old pines that had adorned these hills, nestled between the Hula Valley and the infamous Hizbullah stronghold towns of Maroun a-Ras and Bint Jbail, were consumed in a matter of hours. Winds whipping through the canyons during the driest days of July and August carried fires through brush and woods in the blink of an eye. The conflagration was relentless. "Hundreds of Katyushas fell here," recalls Aviram Zuck, head of Upper Galilee forests for the JNF. "We just kept running from one fire to the next. It's a testament to the relentless efforts of the firemen and the forestry workers that we didn't lose more of these trees than we did." Dr. Omri Boneh, the JNF forester in charge of the entire North, puts it in perspective: During the war, he says, "we dealt with more fires than we did in the past five years." The damage was costly, any way you look at it. Extinguishing the fires cost some NIS 15 million; rehabilitating the forests will take an estimated NIS 80 million or more. At Biriya, trees that burned were some of the oldest planted trees in the country, some even predating the state. Naturally, there is no way to replace trees of that age except to plant saplings and wait another half-century. But there are not yet enough saplings to plant, even with the stockpiles at nurseries around the country, and not enough hands to plant them virtually overnight. Just the first phase of rehabilitating the Biriya forest, Boneh estimates, will take three to five years. Despite the difficulties, though, foresters like Zuck and Boneh are not depressed. As they play their part in helping the country recover from the lingering effects of last summer's war - and with the planting frenzy of Tu Bishvat as a backdrop - they are approaching their task with a sense of purpose in a time of renewal. REHABILITATION EFFORTS began immediately after the cease-fire between Israel and Hizbullah took effect last August. Dead and damaged trees were felled and sold to the wood industry before they dried out. Debris was cleared to prevent vermin from being attracted to the sites. Mulching of unsellable wood was begun, both to prevent soil erosion and to help heal the soil by sealing in as much moisture as possible. More recently, foresters have used improvised earthen dams to prevent runoff water from the rainy season from carrying away the mineral-rich ash and topsoil. The ground is also being prepared for replanting - by volunteers who have already begun notching saplings into furrows and covering them with protective sleeves, by the little hands of schoolchildren who will have made trips to this site and many others in the week before Tu Bishvat, and by the government ministers and captains of industry who want to show their commitment to the hard-hit North, whether at ceremonies sponsored by the JNF, the Jewish Agency, the Nature and Parks Authority or any number of other green groups. But this New Year for the Trees is something more for the foresters of the North, Boneh says. As corny as it sounds, it is a time for growth. "We didn't want these fires," he says, "but the fact is, they have given us an opportunity to make some positive changes." To start with, the forest is getting a makeover. New plantings will contribute to the variety of ages and species of trees at Biriya, which should improve the overall health and sustainability of the forest. "The Katyushas and the fires have also brought to people's attention the importance and the beauty of our country's green areas," Boneh continues. "Since the war, the number of visitors to the parks and forests in the North has increased tenfold." Many of those visitors have come to lend a helping hand to the rehabilitation effort. Some came to trim healthy trees' damaged branches, others to clear the debris so that visitors could enjoy the many trails winding through the hills and gorges of the forest. "When something as tragic as last summer's bombardment happens, naturally people rally behind the cause," says the lanky Boneh, blending in among the thin pines during a walk through the woods. "We've had thousands of volunteers come up here, putting in thousands upon thousands of man-hours of work. They've come from hi-tech, from the army, from industry. They've been individuals, and they've been families. They've been Jews and they've been Arabs. It's been an amazing wave of solidarity. And we thought it would pass, you know, after a month. But it hasn't. It has just kept going. We're still getting 100-150 people a day up here." As the foresters climb a dirt trail overlooking the Dalton vineyard across the valley, a small group, sweating in the midday sun, helps prepare a patch of damaged earth for new, young trees. Around a corner, more volunteers are plunging little flags into the little piles of ash where old trees once stood, and where new trees are meant to planted for Tu Bishvat. "While we are still licking our wounds from the war," Boneh says after waving hello to the volunteers, "we are also taking the opportunity to try to form a stronger bond with the communities in the area. We are not just rehabilitating the forests, we are improving the public's access to them, with more and better trails, with picnic sites and lookout points, and the like. We want people to feel a stronger connection to nature, and we want to encourage tourism based on the wonderful resources we have here in these forests." Indeed, tourism to the North took a big hit last summer; hoteliers were so hurt by the fighting that the government awarded them compensation so they could stay afloat until business picked up again. This part of the country lacks the grandeur and majesty of the Golan Heights, and also lacks the sand and surf of the coast. It trades in large part on its calming green hills and valleys, which make it an island of serenity in an otherwise loud and busy country. The foresters want to make sure the Upper Galilee retains that character. "After the war, the government has had to answer all kinds of questions about its preparedness for another war," says Zuck. "Well, having healthy green areas is a major quality of life issue for citizens, and you shouldn't need the threat of another war to ensure that people have quality of life. These forests are some of Israel's - and especially northern Israel's - greatest resources." Protecting and developing that resource requires investment, though - and since last summer's scenario of rocket barrages is entirely repeatable, not everyone feels it is a safe investment. "Some people ask whether it makes sense to replant all these trees, if they can all just get burned again," Boneh says with obvious understatement. "Well, we don't see it that way." Actually, they see rehabilitating the forest as a sign of the country's civilian resolve, no less important than its military resolve. Replanting trees becomes an act of defiance against Israel's enemies, an old-time expression of Zionism. "The rockets hit a lot of civilian infrastructure during the war, and it was deemed vital to risk people's lives during the fighting to repair that infrastructure. And why is that?" Boneh asks. "Because as Israelis, we found it unacceptable that the train would not run all the way to Nahariya. We insisted on maintaining our way of life." The same goes for defending the forests. "Listen, if you can fix the train lines, the electrical lines and whatnot while rockets are still falling, why not also try to save and rehabilitate the forests?" Israel, the only country in the world to have more trees at the end of the 20th century than at the beginning, is already known for its affinity for trees - and not just on Tu Bishvat. But with so much of its forests burned in such a short time, and another 66,000 dunams of open green areas and 71,000 dunams of pastureland suffering damage as well, it is more apparent than ever that nature cannot handle the repair job alone. "It used to be that people thought that forests could take care of themselves," Zuck says. "But now people see that even trees need help sometimes."