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Israel: a national passion for trees.

"In most countries people are born to forests, and forests are given to them by nature. But here in this country . . . if you see a tree, it was planted by somebody. "

Moshe Rivlin, world chairman of the jewish National Fund, is speaking of Israel and its amazing afforestation program. In a land with seemingly insurmountable problems, the Israelis have planted more than 185 million trees, creating 280 forests that cover 275,000 acres. Every year they plant an additional 5,000 acres-in deserts where the annual rainfall averages as little as 3 1/2 inches, on mountains where slopes run 50 percent or more, in cities where rapid population growth puts added pressure on the land.

In Israel, says Rivlin nonchalantly, "You have to do the impossible."

That task falls to the jewish National Fund (JNF). Founded in 1901 and headquartered in Jerusalem, JNF was originally charged with purchasing land in Israel and holding it in trust for the eventual return of the Jewish people. Now its major activities are afforestation and land reclamation.

"Afforestation in Israel developed by trial and error," explains Dr. Menachem Sachs, director of JNF's southern afforestation region.

The Jews returning to Israel at the end of the last century found a denuded country. The pine and oak forests of Biblical times had been cut by successive conquerors and laid bare by centuries of uncontrolled grazing. The final blow came in the 19th century when the ruling Ottoman Turks clearcut whatever forest remained to obtain timber for building the trans-Arabian railroad. They left the country more than 97 percent bare.

"Things had to be done," Sachs says, "and things happened."

For example, the malaria-infested swamps of the Hula Valley had to be drained; so JNF planted trees, redeeming the land for agriculture. The steep slopes above Tiberias were subject to mudslides; so JNF anchored them with trees, hand-planting each seedling.

"Mostly what we are doing is implementing knowledge out of books and trying to use agricultural means to create the forest," adds Natan Sas, director of the central afforestation region. To augment that book knowledge, JNF has approximately 20 forestry research projects under way in cooperation with various academic institutions.

Like Natan Sas, many of the JNF people directing afforestation efforts were trained in agriculture or horticulture rather than forestry. And their goals are somewhat different from those of the average American forester. "Wood production is a byproduct," Sas says. Israel's forests supply about 10 percent of the wood the nation needs, and most of that comes from thinnings or clearing for roads. The main purpose for planting forests is to make Israel more livable.

Trees rebuild the soil and prevent erosion. In sparsely populated areas, they are used to help establish new settlements and create a Jewish presence. Along the borders, trees are planted for defense. And in cities, forested parks are vital sites for recreation.

Many of Israel's trees are planted by volunteers. In the early days of statehood, tree planting provided work for the flood of immigrants. Today, during Tu B'Shevat, the New Year of the Tree, hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, factory workers, and urban dwellers head for the countryside to plant saplings. For those planning a visit to Israel, the holiday will fall on January 30 in 1991.) Throughout the year visitors and pilgrims have the opportunity to Plant a Tree with Your Own Hands" for a small fee. Among those who have done so are Elizabeth Taylor, Brooke Shields, folk-singers Peter, Paul, and Mary, Senators Edward Kennedy and Daniel Moynihan, Dr. Henry Kissinger, and the late president of Egypt, Anwar-el-Sadat. Altogether, officials estimate, 15 to 17 percent of the five million saplings israel plants every year are planted not by paid staff but by eager volunteers.

Israeli forestry is also somewhat unusual in terms of land ownership and funding. Originally in the business of raising money and buying land, JNF ceded most of its holdings to the state of Israel in 1960 and accepted responsibility for afforestation and development of all publicly owned lands. (Some 92 percent of Israel's land area is publicly owned and leased to agricultural interests, community developments, or individuals for 49-year terms.)

Fund-raising remains an essential activity, however. JNF's annual budget is $110 million, according to Avraham Kalman, director of the fund's USA Department. Half of that comes from lease fees, about 10 percent from the sale of wood products, and the rest from donations. "We have a JNF office in every western democratic country in the world," Kalman says, and a JNF Blue Box in practically every jewish home for Sabbath offerings.

With the money it raises, JNF is changing the face of Israel.

In the Negev, the vast wasteland that occupies the southern half of Israel, JNF foresters are using trees to transform desert into savanna.

At Dudaim, for example, David Nachmias, director of JNF's Land Development Authority, points to a barren, brown landscape cut by gullies. "This area is a desert that was made by people," he says. Years of overgrazing removed practically all vegetation, exposing the limestone soils to increased runoff and erosion.

Now Nachmias hopes to rehabilitate the area by capturing runoff to help grow trees. The technique is fairly simple. Plowed strips along the contour of the hillside alternate with unplowed strips. Runoff from the unplowed strips collects in the plowed strips, where the trees are planted. Annual rainfall averages 7.8 inches, but the trees think they're getting three to four times that amount.

Nearby at Sayeret Shaked, the soils are deeper, so the foresters construct contour bench terraces. Trees are planted at the lower edge of the sloped terraces, where the runoff accumulates.

The species used in both areas include pines, eucalyptus, acacia, and tamarisk. The last two, both native to the region, are valued for their large crowns. Seedling survival is a healthy 85 percent, and planting density is 60 to 80 trees per acre. "The idea is to create a savanna landscape, not a dense forest," explains Nachmias.

'In five to six years we'll have trees," he continues. "We'll have stopped erosion, and we'll have natural vegetation coming in. Then this area will have some ecological value. Now the ecological value is zero."

Meanwhile, researchers are comparing the effects of using contour strips or terraces of various widths on various slopes and with various soils.

An even more intensive approach to water management is being tried on a dry, rocky hillside near Kibbutz Sde Boker. The project, a joint effort by JNF, Ben-Gurion University, and Hebrew University, is challenging many of our preconceptions about desert.

"The combination of rock and desert was considered the worst ecosystem on earth," says Professor Moshe Shachak, an ecologist with Ben-Gurion University. "We claim the opposite. In deserts, rock is good."

Annual rainfall in the area is a meager 3.51 inches. The upper slope is mainly bare bedrock; the lower slope is soil with scattered stones-conditions Shachak says are common to about half the world's desert.

For 15 years the research team has been measuring rainfall and runoff at various points on the slope, trying to explain why scattered patches of naturally occurring vegetation are where they are. What they've found is surprising: in rocky desert, runoff-the redistribution of rainfall-seems to be the key to productivity, not rainfall per se.

Rock is good because it contributes to runoff. "The more rock, the more runoff," Shachak notes. Most of that rainwater never reaches the valley. It filters into the interface between the upper rocky slope and the lower soil slope, creating a fertile belt.

Trees planted there have a better chance of success, and foresters increase their chances even further by giving each tree a mini-catchment. "By changing 10 percent of the area, we can increase biomass production by 50 percent," Shachak says. The result is greater species diversity as well as higher density. In areas with tree plantings and mini-catchments, approximately 60 species of plants will germinate in a given year, as opposed to 40 in control areas. The system also improves soil properties as the water trapped in the catchment gradually leaches salt from the saline soil.

Ten drought-resistant species are being evaluated, including pines, tamarisk, and Callitrus varicosa from Australia. Approximately 50 percent of the planted trees have survived. And researchers are optimistic that the system-which is based on sophisticated knowledge but requires only simple, inexpensive techniques-could be applied in the rocky deserts of Third World countries.

These "savanization" projects actually represent just a portion of JNF's activity in the Negev. Since the early 1920s, the organization has been planting trees in the desert to control dust, reduce erosion, and improve the quality of life. Near Be'er Sheva, the capital of the Negev, forests of several thousand acres have been established, despite an annual rainfall of only 7.8 inches and summer temperatures of 113 degrees F. (see AMERICAN FORESTS, December, 1984). Wherever people are living-in kibbutzim, development towns, or army bases-JNF plants trees. "We try to increase the quantity of green to make life easier," Nachmias says. Generally these plantings range from 150 to 800 acres.

In addition, limans, small clusters of trees, dot the countryside like manmade oases. Limans are created by building dirt retaining walls in low-lying gullies to catch and hold runoff from the winter rains. Trees, generally eucalyptus, are planted within the retaining walls and are never irrigated. Some 250 limans now offer shade and solace to Bedouins and their herds as well as to settlers and soldiers.

"What we are trying to do is not to conquer the desert but to push the desert back," says Rivlin.

Now, in addition to dealing with the challenges of nature, Israeli foresters are facing a new threat: political arson.

In the summer of 1988, some 1,200 wildfires ravaged Israel's forests and pasture lands, destroying 40,500 acres and 1.2 million trees. The financial loss is estimated at $43.4 million. In 1989 Israelis mourned an estimated 250,000 trees destroyed in a blaze that blackened 2,000 acres of their beloved Carmel National Park.

About 30 percent of the fires have been definitely linked to arson, Kalman says. In another 60 percent the cause couldn't be determined, but arson is certainly a possibility.

"It was said out publicly in the Arab quarter," Kalman continues, his voice rising. "There were communiques. We found them. Burn the Israeli forest.' " In the Middle East, planting trees implies ownership of the land. Burning trees inflicts symbolic as well as economic damage.

"They know the side effect, the emotional effect," Kalman continues, and they're trying to hit us in a sensitive area. . . . Trees are life. You're planting life ... and they're burning it. The feeling is horrible."

The amateur arsonists quickly became pros, Kalman adds, using delayed-ignition devices and starting fires simultaneously at multiple sites. JNF for the most part has been underequipped and has had to rely on fire engines from nearby municipalities. Nevertheless, Sas notes, "More than 60 percent of our fires were put down in less than an acre; the other 40 percent did the damage."

The Knesset, the Israeli parliament, passed a law that makes burning a forest punishable by up to 15 years in jail. So far about 40 suspected arsonists have been arrested, and 18 have admitted their guilt.

Meanwhile, JNF enlisted the advice of firefighting experts from the U.S. Forest Service and launched an $18 million Fire Emergency Campaign to prepare for future attacks. The program calls for building 300 miles of access roads, buying 17 fire trucks and other equipment, adding several watch towers, and establishing a comprehensive communications system. Firebreaks are being cut between forests and agricultural areas to reduce the chance of accidental fires, and controlled grazing is being used to reduce the fuel on the forest floor.

In addition, Sas explains, "We're trying to create a way to predict where a fire will be set." By determining a statistical pattern-are most fires started near a settlement, at certain hours, etc.-officials hope to be able to catch the next arsonist in the act.

But can they really stop arson? "I think we can only reduce it," Sas admits. "But if the fire is contained, if it's small, it won't be a media event. The arson won't be successful, and the arsonists won't do it again."

And so the jewish National Fund continues to plant-and to replant when its trees are burned. Through sheer determination it has achieved the seemingly impossible: 51/2 percent of Israel's land area is now forested, 110 major parks and picnic areas have been created, almost 300,000 acres of difficult terrain has been reclaimed for farming and other uses, and over 3,600 miles of roads have been built. But Rivlin warns, "What is still to be done is much more difficult."

The JNF is focusing now on accelerated land reclamation in the rugged Galilee, intensified development in the forbidding Negev, and an ambitious urban-forestry program that will bring Israel's forests closer to its population. (See "The Greening of jerusalem" on page 48.) The starting point, says Rivlin, is the tree.

Planting a tree implies faith in the future, and the Israelis, whose future has often been uncertain, have an abundance of faith.


The challenge of making arid lands productive isn't unique to Israel, and the answers could come more quickly through international cooperation. Toward that end, the Jewish National Fund, the U.S. Forest Service, the American Forestry Association, tile Congressional Fire Services Institute, and fire American universities have formed the Arid Lands Consortium.

Initial research will focus on such topics as dry-land reforestation, agroforestry, water harvesting to improve growing conditions, and use of brackish water for agriculture. The interdisciplinary teams will also study ecological processes in artificial savanas, assess innovative methods of soil and water conservation, and use remote sensing to inventory the resource and detect underground reservoirs. Funding is coming from government organizations and private-sector sponsors.

The consortium is headquartered at the University of Arizona in Tuscon. Other participants include New Mexico State University of Illinois, and South Dakota State Universaity.


Jerusalem glistens in the sunlight, clusters of pink-gold buildings set off brilliantly against a background of green. An indigenous limestone gives the buildings their characteristic glow. A determined effort is giving the city its present forest crown.

Once covered with forests, the mountains of Jerusalem were stripped bare by centuries of overgrazing, overharvesting, and neglect. In 1952 the Jewish National Fund (JNF) began planting the Jerusalem Forest, the first of many forests and forest parks that would make the capital bloom again.

Today some 2,750 wooded acres surround and crisscross the city, and each year 250 more acres are planted as the Israelis work toward their ultimate goal: 10,000 acres of forest beautifying one of the world's most ancient, most sacred cities. The plan, says JNF forester Natan Sas, is to create not merely a greenbelt around the periphery but a green web" that crisscrosses the city.

The mountainous topography lends itself to such a plan, but it also creates challenges. The steep, rocky slopes generally must be planted by hand, and access roads and scenic drives must be carefully planned to avoid adding to problems of runoff and erosion. An annual rainfall of only 20 inches, most of it concentrated between December and March, and the relatively high alkalinity of the terra-rosa soils, are other important considerations.

The species that seem best adapted to these conditions-at least initially-are pines. Foresters rely heavily on the native Jerusalem pine (Pinus halepensis) but add other species, including Canary pine (P. canariensis), Cyprus pine (P. brutia), and stone pine (P. pinea), to avoid monoculture problems. Several types of cypress are also used. Once this pioneer forest is established, foresters introduce oaks (principally Quercus calliprinos) and pistachios (including Pistacia palaestina), the other species that dominated the ancient Jerusalem forest. The goal is to restore the natural forest mix. -We think we need 80 to 100 years for this to happen, admits Sas; but that, he says, is "a short time" compared to centuries of abuse.

The new forests define and separate neighborhoods, provide recreational opportunities, and preserve the unique character of Jerusalem. Within them are playgrounds, "landscape adventures," hiking trails, picnic areas, a summer youth camp, and a water park as well as historic and archaeologic sites such as Sataf Biblical Farm.

This massive urban-forestry project is directed by a committee composed of representatives of JNF, the municipality, and the government. The committee faces increasing pressures as Jerusalem expands. (Since 1967, the population of the city has more than doubled, to about 450,000.) Greenspace must be provided. So every year they plant another 250 acres at a cost of half a million dollars, adding another green gem to the "Crown of Jerusalem."
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Title Annotation:includes related information
Author:Lora, Mary Elaine
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jul 1, 1990
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