In defense of Keren Kayemet LeIsrael’s tree-planting

Some in Israel’s environmentalist community have accused the organization of “altering the native landscapes” by planting trees, but the truth is far more complex.

The Yatir Forest, which covers 7,413 acres, is named after the Levite city whose ruins are found within it, and was planted and developed thanks to contributions from friends of KKL-JNF worldwide. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The Yatir Forest, which covers 7,413 acres, is named after the Levite city whose ruins are found within it, and was planted and developed thanks to contributions from friends of KKL-JNF worldwide. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Gary Schiff
Gary Schiff is a Jerusalem-based resource consultant and guide connecting Israel and the United States.

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) has once again published a report critical of Keren Kayemet LeIsrael’s (KKL’s) work.

In this report, titled “The Need to Stop Afforestation in Sensitive Natural Ecosystems in Israel,” they focus on KKL’s reforesting efforts and advocate for a cessation of tree planting and letting nature take its course. The report goes on to suggest removing authority for managing Israel’s forests from KKL and giving it to another agency. It accuses KKL of “altering the native landscapes” by planting trees. But the truth is quite different.

The truth is that Israel unfortunately has no pristine native landscapes. Humans have heavily impacted, and in many places, abused almost every square meter of Israel over many millennia. Hence the report’s underlying assumptions are faulty. Further, the report argues for a “let nature heal itself” approach, which in many cases would lead to further degraded landscapes.

By all measures, KKL has done a remarkable job in re-establishing forest cover, preventing soil erosion and increasing wildlife habitat. They continue to work tirelessly in recreating sustainable forests similar to those which were here millennia ago.

There is a reason famed American author Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), who visited the region in 1867, described the land of Israel as a desolate dust bowl: It was.

Here is how he described the country in his classic work The Innocents Abroad:

“[A] desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds—a silent mournful expanse. … A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action. … We never saw a human being on the whole route. … There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of the worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.”

We have considerable evidence from the historical record and recent archeo-botanical studies that millennia ago a good portion of Israel was filled with many of the species named in the Bible. There are historical accounts that indicate the Romans were responsible for the deforestation of the native Mediterranean forests, as wood constituted 90 percent of their fuel source.

But the real devastation was caused by the overgrazing of sheep and goats for the past 2,000 years. Then, in the early part of the 19th century, whatever trees were left were removed by the Turks in their efforts to build and power a railroad.

Over the millennia, there was probably not a square meter of Israel that was left undisturbed. There is, unfortunately, no natural untouched landscape in Israel.

Moreover, the land of Israel had literally been washing away. Omri Bonneh, KKL’s acting chief forester, points to photos taken in the Be’eri Forest in the northern Negev, near the Gaza Strip, which illustrate where ground level was a few hundred years ago and where it is today. The ground in some of these areas is two meters lower than it used to be—the land of Israel has literally been pouring into the sea. Trees can dramatically help to halt soil erosion and can also stop the encroachment of the desert.

There are also basic principles of range management that need to be adhered to. A responsible livestock owner should allow his animals to eat only half of the grasses and shrubs, leaving half in order to provide a sustainable native seed source. They should also manage their livestock so as to protect streams and springs. Over the past millennia, local residents allowed their livestock to completely overgraze the land of Israel.

In addition, sheep and goats are more impactful than cattle. When they eat shrubs and grasses, they can pull the roots from the ground and goats will eat a variety of vegetation, including any emerging seedlings.

In 1901, along came Keren Kayemet LeIsrael. They looked for native Mediterranean pine species to help reestablish forests. They began planting in earnest with great help from Jews around the world, who donated and continue to donate via the “little blue tzedakah boxes.” Their efforts have been wonderfully successful. The massive soil erosion that was occurring was arrested. Organic matter was returned to the land of Israel.

In the recent past, some in the environmental movement have called these forests “pine deserts” and accused KKL of negatively impacting plant and animal diversity. But subsequent studies have shown those claims to be false. Further, such claims fail to take into account how forests work and develop over time.

Reestablishing forests on denuded sites has to begin with species whose seedlings can withstand full sunlight. Since there is no dormant seed source left in the soil, seedlings need to be planted. After they are established, then there are opportunities to plant the native broad-leafed species. That is exactly what KKL is doing. KKL tree nurseries today are raising the original species: oak, pistachio, Aleppo pine, cedar and carob. Today they will have a much better chance of survival because the sites are forested.

This is the exact same principle we see in the western United States, where aspen trees provide the initial tree cover after a fire, and only later, in the shade of the aspens, do the heartier “climax species” become established.

In addition to historical records, today we have a new branch of science to help us understand the forests of old. Archeo-botany is the study of historic and pre-historic plant species. Director of KKL’s Forest Management Program Asaf Caravani noted that archeo-botanists who have surveyed in Israel have been able to identify tree pollen, including from the Aleppo pine, from past millennia.

When SPNI uses the term “afforestation” instead of “reforestation” to describe all of KKL’s work, it implies that there were previously no trees on the site. From both historic and scientific evidence we know this is largely untrue. When SPNI describes KKL’s work in creating “planted forests,” it implies these forests are unnatural and deleterious to the environment. Again, their claim is inaccurate.

In Africa, there is the “Great Green Wall,” an ambitious plan to stop the Sahara desert from spreading to the south by planting trees. In Israel, KKL is planting in targeted semi-arid areas to try to prevent the Negev from spreading. KKL actually pioneered this work and the use of innovative “water harvesting” techniques for these harsh environments over 60 years ago to help halt the desertification and erosion which was degrading much of the landscape.

To date, KKL has planted somewhere around 240 million trees. They are responsible for caring for approximately 400,000 of Israel’s 5.45 million acres, or 7 percent of Israel’s land mass. They focus their efforts on previously forested land or in specific areas where soil loss or the encroaching desert is a critical concern. A satellite view of Israel shows an island of green in a sea of badly abused desert. The plentiful oaks of Bashan (in Jordan) and the cedars of Lebanon described in the Bible are hard to find today. But the native species of Israel are beginning to flourish.

Some in the Israeli environmental community are attempting to use the same playbook as their colleagues in the United States. In the United States, there seems to be a recurring pattern where an environmental group files a report critical of the U.S. Forest Service, which has a mission of conservation, similar to that of KKL. They will then ask Congress to transfer management to the National Park Service, which has a mission of preservation.

Much of this discussion is really about that larger argument—conservation vs. preservation. Should humans be involved in the natural world to wisely use resources, to visit, to help heal and protect those forests, or should humans allow the natural world to try to heal itself and not interfere. Especially in Israel, a land which was abused for so long and has little capability to heal itself, the preservation mission, in many settings, is misplaced. That said, there are also important park-like areas throughout Israel that need to be preserved.

Are there forest practices that KKL might have employed decades ago which might have been more helpful? Would it have been better to plant a wider variety of pine species when KKL first started planting? Would wider, more park-like spacing in certain drier settings be helpful in minimizing wildfire impacts? Absolutely. KKL will be the first to admit that they continue to learn and improve.

But overall, one can only marvel at the transformation of the landscape described by Mark Twain to the Israeli landscape of today, and look forward to a future where the land of Israel will continue to heal and the native forest species described in the Bible will dominate the landscape. KKL deserves our gratitude.

Gary Schiff is a Jerusalem-based natural resource consultant connecting Israel and the United States.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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