The new chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, Vicki Christiansen, was in Israel last week touring the country’s forests with Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF).

“It is an honor to be here representing the U.S. Forest Service,” she said. “We have been learning from each other for 32 years and hope we can continue to strengthen our special relationship.”

KKL-JNF Northern Region director Dr. Omri Boneh echoed Christiansen’s assessment.

Christiansen is responsible for managing America’s National Forests, 154 protected areas covering 188,336,179 acres, or 10 percent of the United States land base, as well as providing assistance to the nation’s state and private forests and overseeing the Forest Service’s research and development program.

This was Christiansen’s first overseas trip, and a particularly timely one given the recent devastating forest fires in Israel, which forced thousands to flee their homes. The tour included a staff ride through the area affected by the 2010 Carmel Fire, reviewing events as they occurred, visiting the memorial to those who perished and looking at the work being done by both KKL-JNF and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Much of that work since the fire has included restoring the forest with native species less susceptible to wildfires.

Two hundred years ago, the environmental devastation caused by centuries of overgrazing had taken its toll on Israel, as it had on the American west. In Israel, KKL-JNF began planting trees to reestablish forests across the country. Their work was successful in that these forests helped rebuild the soil and prevent further degradation of Israel’s watersheds, however, the species they planted were mostly non-native pines which grew into dense forests susceptible to wildfires.

Over the past several decades, KKL-JNF has been growing native deciduous trees, such as carobs and oaks, in their nurseries. Many of these are the tree species named in the Bible. Slowly Israel’s forests are returning to the forests of old, forests less susceptible to wildfire.

At the end of the tour, Christiansen planted one of these native trees.

Given the devastating fires suffered by both countries in recent years, the two forestry leaders also discussed the need to work with communities and homeowners to help make their homes more “fire safe.” These programs include encouraging homeowners to clear brush and trees adjoining their homes.

Tour stops also showcased KKL-JNF’s work in the Hula Valley wetlands and with dryland forestry in the south.

Both organizations committed to continue learning from each other.

“We are discussing ways to expand opportunities for our staffs to learn from each other, which will continue to deepen our relationship,” said Christiansen, adding that she was “thrilled to have had the opportunity to visit Israel and Israel’s beautiful forests.”