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Forest fire fuels review of Israel's tree-planting tradition

By Joel Greenberg
Special to the Washington Post
Sunday, December 26, 2010; 5:43 PM

BEIT OREN, Israel - Among the charred trees and layers of ash in Israel's scorched Carmel National Park, a stone marker near a blackened stand of pines honors American Jewish donors who gave money to plant the trees.

A radio advertisement before the hourly news exhorts Israelis to donate to restore the burned forest, urging them to "bring the green back to the Carmel!"

This month's forest fire in northern Israel, which destroyed nearly 8,000 acres of woodlands in the Mount Carmel range, burned homes and killed more than 40 people, was the biggest conflagration in the country's 62-year history. But the flames also struck at a central Zionist ethos that has been part of Israeli lore since the days of its early pioneers: greening the bare hills by planting thousands upon thousands of pine trees.

In the wind-whipped fire, the flammable pines, both native and planted, fueled the flames which raced across the wooded ridge, consuming a bus full of prison guards on their way to evacuate a jail, ravaging homes in adjacent communities and laying waste to nearly a third of a precious natural preserve.

The devastation has raised questions about the place and management of forests in a drought-plagued Middle Eastern country in an age of global warming. And it has forced a reassessment of traditional tree-planting efforts long seen by Israelis and Jewish contributors abroad as part of a national mission to "make the wasteland bloom."

"The fire was a catalyst, a trigger for rethinking which was already going on but needed a push," said Israel Tauber, director of forest management at the Jewish National Fund, a land development agency that acts as Israel's forest service. "It's no longer an instinct that wherever the forest is burned, we rush out and plant."

In Israel's early days, the country's founders, who came from forested Europe, set a goal of covering the bare, rocky hills of their new homeland with trees, replacing natural woods and scrub that had been cut down for centuries for fuel and construction.

"They saw it as a declaration of ownership, a change of landscape that makes the country more similar to Eastern Europe, and they thought that the timber had economic potential - a naive Zionist dream," said Avi Perevolotsky, an ecologist and forest expert at the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture's research center.

Inadequate rain and soil conditions prevented the production of commercial-grade timber. The pines, chosen for their ability to grow rapidly and survive in a dry and sunny climate, did indeed spread over the hills, dramatically altering the landscape. But since they were densely planted and all of the same age and type, they were susceptible to the spread of disease, which killed numerous trees in subsequent decades.

The Jewish National Fund shifted its forestry policy in the 1990s, thinning out the pines to allow for growth under the trees, including native species such as oak and pistacia, which were also planted to produce a mixed, less-vulnerable forest.

But the traditional ethos of tree-planting persisted. Jewish National Fund forests, some planted over the ruins of Palestinian villages emptied during Israel's war of independence, became popular picnic and recreation areas, providing shade and greenery in a sun-baked land. In an annual ritual on Tu Bishvat, the Jewish Arbor Day, Israeli schoolchildren trooped out to plant trees in the hills. Their counterparts in Jewish schools in the United States, and their parents, donated money to plant a tree in Israel, and Jewish visitors to the country were taken to tree-planting centers to put a sapling in the earth with their own hands.

This month's fire delivered a jolt, confronting Israeli foresters with the challenge of managing the rehabilitation of the Carmel in a way that will prevent another large-scale blaze. Long-ignored recommendations by experts to create fire-breaks, thin out the forests, and use animal grazing to prevent the buildup of shrubs that fuel fires, are now getting renewed attention.

And the cherished value of planting more trees is also coming into question. On the floor of the Carmel forest, millions of seeds released by pine cones during the fire have settled into the earth and ash, and some fresh grass and flowers have already appeared after a first burst of winter rains.

Perevolotsky, who serves on a government-appointed committee on rehabilitating the Carmel, says there is general agreement that the forest should be allowed to regenerate naturally, a process that will take decades.

"There's an absolute consensus that nothing needs to be done" now, he said, adding that the pine seeds would naturally produce an abundance of new seedlings. "In another few years we will have to thin out, not plant, and take measures to prevent the next fires."

Tauber, who is helping write Israel's first forestry guidelines, said that "after the fire we understood that the first thing to do is let nature take its course. You don't have to plant."

Next month, during the tree holiday of Tu Bishvat, there may be ceremonial plantings on the Carmel by Israeli leaders, but these will be symbolic, Tauber said.

Yagil Osem, a forest ecologist who is also serving on an expert committee, said that the focus now would be on sustainable management of the forest in way that would enable it to regenerate with a variety of trees and survive in Israel's dry climate - and under heavy public use. The burned areas will serve as a living lab.

"We're starting to put into practice forest management based on natural processes," Osem said. "Planting was always the symbol and will always be an element, but its part in the story is getting smaller."

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