Israel’s extraordinary forests

An excerpt from a new book on the country’s woodlands in honor of Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year for the Trees.

A view of the Jerusalem Forest from Yad Vashem. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A view of the Jerusalem Forest from Yad Vashem.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
It might seem that Israel’s forests are so small as to be irrelevant in the international discourse about global forestry programs.
Today, the country’s woodlands fill over 8 percent of its territory; but then, Israel is a tiny country. All told, its forests amount to little more than 101,170 hectares (250,000 acres) – about 1/60,000 of the wooded area on the planet, seemingly inconsequential.
Yet these trees and their history are worth considering, and the chronicles of Israeli afforestation may be highly instructive to a world that seeks to restore its timberlands. Because it is such an extreme case, it offers a model – for better or for worse.
To understand why Israeli woodlands and forestry experience matter, a few words about the global situation are in order.
No natural resource on the planet has been more affected by human activities than the earth’s forests. Some 8,000 years ago, at the end of the pre-agricultural age when there were but five million people on the globe, forests covered 47% of the lands on the planet. Since then, a great deal has been lost.
Estimates of the actual dimensions of deforestation vary dramatically: National Geographic likes to quote one analysis that counts three-quarters of the original forests as missing. The 2005 UN/World Bank “Millennium Ecosystem Assessment,” with over 1,000 participating scientists, is probably the most ambitious and reliable inventory of the planet’s resources to date; it calculated that humans have destroyed some 40% of the earth’s original forests.
Modern technology, along with massive population growth during the 20th century, accelerated the phenomenon dramatically – half of historic deforestation has taken place during the past 100 years.
Forests’ significance has gained even greater recognition in recent years, due to their role in regulating and maintaining the planet’s climate. As old-growth forests disappear without being replaced, carbon escapes to the atmosphere and terrestrial sequestration drops. Land use changes currently contribute 17% to annual global greenhouse gas emissions, with calculations dominated by deforestation in the tropics. The UN estimates that soil and vegetation sequester 2.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide annually; forests absorb the lion’s share of this CO2.
Despite the massive devastation, forests still cover 31% of the planet’s land surface and the rate of destruction appears to be slowing. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that between the years 2000 and 2010, some 5.2 million hectares (about 12.9 million acres) of forests were cut or burned. This is a staggeringly high figure, but 38% lower than the 8.3 million hectares (over 20.5 million acres) lost during the previous decade.
Such numbers are almost too titanic for mere mortals to wrap their mind around. Suffice it to say that today, annual deforestation destroys a forested area the size of Costa Rica, while a decade ago there was a Poland-sized loss each and every year.
If there is progress and reason for optimism, it is because many countries finally started to understand that trees constitute a renewable resource. This has translated into new public policies and the launching of large-scale afforestation efforts.
It is the associated gains, rather than any significant drop in old growth deforestation, that are behind the statistics which offer a glimmer of hope.
As the world begins to restore at least a portion of its devastated woodlands, questions of quality emerge. Ecological integrity is not only a function of quantity; it is critical to better understand: “How much land should be planted?” “How should we plant?” and “What ecosystem services can the new stands provide?” Present trends suggest that humanity might be turning a corner, and the aggregate increase in forest lands could soon exceed that which is harvested. As the world launches its collective reforestation campaign, it is important to get it right.
The story of Israel’s forestry therefore is relevant for land managers, environmental advocates and policy-makers, who seek a sustainable strategy for reforestation and afforestation efforts. During its 66-year history, Israel has proven that trend is not destiny – by expanding its forested areas more than eight-fold. Indeed, in 1948, the planted stands and remnants of natural woodlands occupied about 1% of the area of the state. By 2005 that figure had increased to some 8.5%, and should easily cross the 10% mark before stabilizing in a couple of decades.
A land that was synonymous with erosion, desertification and human neglect is enjoying an environmental makeover.
This exercise in ecological rehabilitation occurred in a country where 97% of the ground is classified as “drylands,” making it particularly germane for half of the planet where water will always be scarce.
The very alacrity with which Israel’s foresters and the politicians who backed them embraced the country’s forestry challenges ensured that mistakes would be made. And indeed they were – with economic, political and ecological consequences.
But, in retrospect, lessons were learned and new approaches and policies for managing woodlands evolved.
Like most of the snows that fall upon the wooded Jerusalem hills every few years, the flurries in December 1972 provided an ephemeral change of color and excitement for children, who equate even imperceptible levels of snow with missing school.
Ultimately, it was hardly a remarkable Mediterranean storm – nothing remotely resembling a blizzard. No one ever imagined that it might bring ruin in its wake, but it did.
Driving from the coast to Jerusalem, one begins to ascend the inclines of Judea and passes through Sha’ar Hagai. This strategic pass between the hills, roughly halfway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, was the site of fierce battles in the War of Independence, as Jewish forces attempted to break the siege on their newly declared capital.
The area is also home to a forest of predominantly Aleppo pine trees, or, as they are locally known, Jerusalem pines.
Planted between 1927 and 1937 by the British Mandate’s Forestry Service, the woodlands were later expanded by its successors in the KKL-JNF. Soon, Sha’ar Hagai became one of the notable woodlands lining the highway linking Israel’s two largest cities; a dense pine forest spread a lush green blanket across the hills. More than just a fetching recreational destination, it offered proof of regeneration.
But there were foresters who had already noticed that the stands, hiding behind the vigorous trees lining the roads, were not doing well. In summer 1968, in order to meet the increased traffic coming to see the united capital after the Six Day War, the highway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was widened to four lanes. To make room for the asphalt, the outer row of trees was removed, revealing a sickly, wilting stand of “scarecrows.”
Four years later, even the more robust edge branches had dried into a desiccated reddish hue that was brittle and weak.
Snowflakes clung to the boughs and began to collect. Like the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back, thousands of pine trees simply collapsed under the weight.
KKL-JNF foresters from the period found themselves under attack – with the media vilifying what appeared to be systematic incompetence. The director of KKL-JNF’s Central Region, Haim Blass, convened a press conference to assuage the concerns of the press and its charges of ecological disaster. These Jerusalem pines were 50 years old, he explained; they had reached full maturity, completed their role as pioneers and were in their final stage of an ecological succession. The forest would be just fine.
But politicians didn’t buy it. They continued to drive by crumpled trees on their way from Tel Aviv to the Knesset, and were uncomfortable with the sight and symbolism of a moribund landscape. It was as close to an ecological trauma as the nation had ever undergone, and they wanted someone to blame.
A 14-person blue-ribbon panel of inquiry was convened in 1974 to analyze the problem, chaired by Hebrew University botany professor Abraham Fahan. The committee listed 12 possible causes for the atrophying of Sha’ar Hagai’s trees, but was loathe to indict a definitive smoking gun.
In March 1975, Hugh Wilcox, the renowned American plant pathologist of the State University of New York, appeared before the committee. Only after he confidently shared an unequivocal diagnosis was the panel convinced about the central role in the collapse played by the Israeli pine bast scale, a well-known local pest. The Israeli press was quick to publish the findings.
It has been said that there is usually an inverse relationship between the size of an organism and its Latin taxonomical name. That is surely the case for the Matsucoccus Josephi Bodenheimer et Harpaz – with “Josephi” conveying a dubious taxonomic honor to KKL-JNF chief and pine champion Joseph Weitz. (Bodenheimer and Harpaz refers to the scientists who first studied the pest.) Quite a mouthful, international literature simply calls the bug the Israeli pine bast scale.
When you plant a monoculture crop, conditions for pests become stable: they enjoy homogeneous cover and a bountiful food source; this is true in forests as well. In general, the greater the diversity of tree species in a woods, the less frequent and less severe the pest outbreaks. At the same time, the habitat and environmental opportunities for natural predators is reduced.
In a word, the hapless pines became an all-you-can-eat buffet. As the insect munches through the bark, it excretes a poisonous saliva which serves to disrupt water transport to the tree and essentially paralyzes any new growth. The result appears as a “drying up” of the affected branches.
Genetic weaknesses was also part of the problem. Aleppo pine seeds were largely imported into Israel during the British Mandate, so trees planted never had a chance to co-evolve with the local varieties of scale. These pines may have enjoyed genetic resistance to insects prevalent in the Western Mediterranean, but were highly susceptible to the Eastern Mediterranean varieties they encountered in Israel.
The new forests soon made enemies other than pests and disease. During the 1950s, the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel emerged as the country’s largest NGO of any kind, establishing a national network of educational field schools. Gidi Ne’eman is today a distinguished professor of ecology at the University of Haifa; in the early 1960s, he worked in the Galilee out of the SPNI’s field school on Mount Meron. He smiles now as he recalls the nocturnal retaliatory raids made by the young nature lovers. Zealously they uprooted the newly planted KKLJNF pine saplings they saw as trespassers, sullying their beloved natural landscape: “We saw the foresters as the enemy, a total catastrophe.
They would say: ‘You protect nature. Our job is to make forests. Don’t tell a farmer how to grow pears; don’t tell us how to raise trees.’ “I remember at Har Hazon, not far from my present home, one fine day they showed up and burned all the natural vegetation. Then they returned with bulldozers, dug up the entire northern side and planted pine trees.
There had been beautiful oak and katlav (Greek strawberry) trees there. Wildflowers. All destroyed. That’s how they worked in those days. So we fought back.”
As luck would have it, the chief forester for the North, Tuvia Ashbel, had a daughter who worked as a volunteer at the field school – so obtaining intelligence was not a problem. This confrontation was settled decades later when KKL-JNF came to rethink its planting methods.
In retrospect, the decimation of Sha’ar Hagai’s pine trees was a highly predictable disaster waiting to happen.
The 1972 snowstorm in the Jerusalem hills can be seen as a watershed event in which an entire approach to planting forests collapsed along with the lifeless trees. It would take the better part of 20 years for the new gospel of sustainability to sink in with foresters in the field, and translate into an operational shift to greater species diversity, lower planting densities and a preference for the more resistant Brutia pines.
Even the most ecologically devout foresters working in Israel today still salute the first generation of Israeli foresters, and the vast stands of pine monocultures they planted.
Their personal dedication was fierce, their work hard and the stands planted served as “set-asides” for today’s woodlands.
In retrospect, perhaps their most impressive characteristic was their ability to learn from mistakes and completely redefine the procedures, priorities and practices within Israel’s forests.
New faces in the forest
One could argue that a key factor in KKL-JNF’s transition to sustainable forestry was Haim Zaban’s aversion to having a personal driver.
Zaban remains one of Israel’s most innovative and bold agricultural economists. In 1960, fresh out of graduate school, he started up the ladder in the Agriculture Ministry, where he came to chair the committee that reviewed KKL-JNF forestry proposals.
In 1981, Zaban received a call: It appeared there was political support for him to become director of the Land Development Authority, KKL-JNF’s operational arm. Zaban didn’t hesitate to seize the professional opportunity; yet he soon realized he would have to make meaningful changes in personnel if he was to implement the many reforms he envisioned.
The KKL-JNF’s labor union to this day wields remarkable power – and imposes its views on most personnel appointments.
Bringing in new blood with more academic backgrounds and ecological credentials was no easy matter. The politically elected board of directors was typically disinclined to drag the organization into the throes of a general strike over nuances in résumé quality and professional qualifications.
And so Zaban began to sneak idealistic and able men with relevant university training into his refurbished forestry organization. He was particularly interested in finding workers disposed to studying problems analytically, rather than automatically accepting the way the system worked. The labor union, naturally, was totally opposed.
Zaban decided to drive himself while hiring young college graduates with appropriate training to take a fictitious chauffeur’s position. He’d give them sundry forestry assignments and let them build up practical skill-sets.
When he’d post a new professional position, the driver could compete for the job as a bona fide KKL-JNF employee.
Based on academic criteria, the driver’s appropriate CV had no trouble winning the tender; Zaban would then hire another “driver.”
Ever since the British Mandate, forestry managers in Israel also assumed that timber was their ultimate raison d’etre. But as an economist, Zaban calculated that this assumption was not valid. To be sure, dryland forestry provided a broad range of benefits. But in a land of limited rainfall and poor soils, a profitable timber industry was not one of them.
Zaban’s perspective took a while to sink in, as top-down reforms often do. By 1990, the KKL-JNF Forestry Department codified the new perspective in an “Updated Program for Management and Treatment of Planted Forests in Israel.” Drafted by the country’s top managers in consultation with leading academics, the goals of forestry were redefined.
Environmental benefits – including landscape improvement, remedying environmental and aesthetic hazards, soil preservation and sand dune stabilization – topped the list of forestry objectives. Social benefits like hiking, recreation and tourism followed. Economics appeared last, almost an afterthought (alongside grazing and protecting national lands).
Freed of any illusions, the shackles of yield intensification and profit maximization that had once constrained managers were gone. New policies and practices coalesced in every realm of forestry: matching tree species with soil type; diversifying plantings; reducing stand density; encouraging natural regeneration; preventing fires; increasing handicapped accessibility and integrated pest management.
Naturally, changes were easier to envision than implement and the new strategies brought many technical problems, but they also opened the door to creative solutions. The policies offered the promise of forests that would more closely resemble Israel’s original woodlands, more effectively prevent erosion and be more resilient to pests and fires, while also being easier to hike in and more picturesque.
Experts had long postulated that left to their own devices, successional processes in woodlands would lead to a diverse broad-leaf assemblage dominated by oak trees.
But a well-funded, highly motivated afforestation bureaucracy was not about to wait centuries for nature to take its course. Open spaces in a crowded country need to be managed thoughtfully and professionally.
The operational goal became acceleration of natural processes and expediting the rich assortment of trees in new forests. This “recruitment” of native species into the existing order to improve the genetic, structural and functional diversity was considered a key component of sustainable management in forest plantations.
As it turns out, adding additional species was not without its problems.
To imitate nature, foresters interspersed a healthy mixture of tree sizes and species throughout newly planted parcels. When broadleaf natives – such as oaks or terebinths – were randomly distributed among pine seedlings, they could not compete with the conifers. If they did manage to find sufficient light to survive, native broadleaf trees grew painfully slowly and remained as suppressed understory, 15 years after planting. Techniques were eventually developed for transplantation of mature oak trees that yielded impressive survival rates of 96 %, but this was an extremely expensive measure and infeasible on a macro level. A feasible solution needed to rely on acorns.
When establishing new forests, parcels with different tree types were together forming a patchwork mosaic with an assortment of species. The layout made for more efficient management, with uniform weed control, irrigation or polypropylene tree shelters designed especially for a given patch. A “separate but equal” affirmative action orientation improved the survival rates of the broadleafed natives. Prior to that, many of the valorized broadleaf species simply could not make a go of it in areas where rainfall drops below 400 mm.
The management reforms were also manifested in a softer and gentler approach to the planting process.
For instance, in areas with modest rainfall, soil conservation and ecological integrity received greater attention.
Native trees were meticulously preserved while preparing the ground for seedlings, and the wholesale burning of undergrowth phased out. Hulking bulldozers were replaced by more meticulous “point preparation” machinery.
Each climate and terrain required its own planting methods. For example, preparation of lands in the semi-arid Negev necessitated entirely different techniques than the steep, rocky hills of the Galilee.
Pesticide use is another area where changes began to happen. In 1960, the KKL-JNF introduced simazine into its chemical arsenal. This herbicide is particularly effective against broadleafed weeds and annual grasses.
Sprayed from airplanes over large swaths of land, it did a superb job of keeping weeds at bay, saving thousands of worker hours.
But it was still a toxic poison: Not only were there concerns that the chemicals would run off and bio-accumulate in aquatic organisms frequenting local streams and lakes, deleterious health effects in humans were also likely.
Once again, forestry policy moved in stages towards sustainability. Cognizant of European policies banning the chemical, in 2005 the KKL-JNF’s sustainable development committee decided to phase out the use of simazine in Israeli forestry programs as well. When KKL-JNF needs to resort to herbicides today, it uses more benign and costly biodegradable alternatives.
No area of change was as dramatic as tree density.
During the 1950s, in practice, density averaged 289 trees per 0.1 hectare (about .025 acre). The 1990 KKL-JNF best practices guide called for a completely different strategy. It assumed that due to limited resources, there would only be a single thinning for pines when trees reached a height of 2.5 to 3 meters – between the ages of eight and 12 years.
Presumably, by then, trees would be less vulnerable to damage from grazing animals.
With this in mind, a new density standard in rocky areas was set at a mere 45 to 65 trees per 0.1 hectare – an order of magnitude lower than the original reference point – with “no limitations on subsequent thinning.” The dramatic reduction was made easier because of steady improvements in seedling quality, weed control, wheeled tractors equipped with augers and excavators, maneuverability in point-site preparation, fencing and “tree shelters.”
The proximate reason behind the decision to lower densities was improved tree health. Yet there was also an implicit assumption that greater spacing offered additional benefits – such as natural generation of broadleaf species on the exposed forest floor, and a more pleasant experience for visitors.
The dance of restoration
Ecological trends worldwide are largely discouraging.
For people who consider the big picture and think beyond isolated micro-successes, it is often difficult to find reasons for optimism. So when there is good news, it is important to hail environmental achievements which show that in fact there are alternatives.
A more sustainable course really does exist. Unlike other countries in the Eastern Mediterranean that accepted the loss of their forestry heritage as preordained, Israel chose to change natural history and replant. Initial efforts may have been clumsy and overzealous, but there was sufficient humility to learn from mistakes and seek a more sustainable model.
The psalmist wrote: “Then, all the trees of the forest shall rejoice.” After a long absence, and a slow but stubborn start a century ago, many trees in the Land of Israel again rejoice as they deliver a host of wonderful services to inhabitants.
The new generation of forests remains a work in progress; there is still much work left to be done. The woodlands have only begun their successional passage to greater complexity, stability and beauty. Israel’s forestry policies and management strategies should be scrutinized, criticized and improved.
But this dispassionate discourse should never forget that the overarching context is one of proactive engagement.
Loss of woodlands need not be an ineluctable part of modern civilization, even in drylands.
Human beings can choreograph a better reality. If all the trees of the forest once again are rejoicing, surely humans can also celebrate with them in this dance of restoration.
This is an excerpt from the recently published All the Trees of the Forest, Israel’s Woodlands from the Bible to the Present (New Haven, Yale University Press)