Invasive species, protests and wildfires: How to plant a tree in Israel has become controversial

HAIFA, Israel (JTA) — Each year, the You Bishvat, the Jewish holiday celebrating trees and plants, Lior Weitz and his wife take their two daughters to plant pine saplings – the tree that more than any other symbolizes Israel’s historic reforestation project.

They join thousands of families at one of the annual planting ceremonies organized by the Jewish National Fund, a Zionist organization established in 1901 and the Jewish state’s chief forest management agent. He planted about 240 million trees, including many pines, on some 227,000 acres, an area larger than New York City.

“It’s an activity that combines everything we believe in: love for the environment, the land, the country and growth,” said Weitz, 46, Ramat Gan’s website manager.

Diaspora Jews, meanwhile, have long grown up donating money for JNF trees, a tangible symbol of their emotional and financial investment in Israel.

But increasingly, JNF’s flagship program is attracting heavy criticism. Those with ideological objections call it colonialist, and environmentalists call it harmful because it allowed a single species to spread unchecked, decreasing biodiversity and increasing the risk of wildfires.

Colonialism claims resurfaced periodically in international media as part of their coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, linking reforestation to the “Judaization” of land previously owned by Arabs. JNF supporters claim that its forests are planted on land legally purchased by Zionists for the establishment of a Jewish state. A JNF spokesman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the tree planting began as an effort to “demonstrate ownership” of non-urban Jewish-owned land that could not be cultivated.

The most recent example of this larger controversy is unfolding in the Negev desert, where Bedouins have protested that the trees are disrupting their agricultural livelihoods. Dozens of people have been arrested in clashes with police, and an Arab-Israeli party has endangered Israel’s slim majority government coalition by threatening to withdraw from the coalition until reforestation s ‘stopped. As of Wednesday evening, JNF construction had come to a halt in the area.

But the conflict does not seem to have diminished Israeli enthusiasm for the practice. About 30% of the 300,000 trees the JNF plants each year are placed in the ground by volunteers, according to Hagay Yavlovich, one of the JNF’s most experienced foresters.

Some planters, like the Weitz family, record the coordinates of the trees they plant and visit them occasionally to admire their growth.

“There is a whole connection with the tree. We always collect the little flags that mark the pits where we plant the tree. We have dozens of those memories,” said Lior Weitz, who has been coming to JNF events since his oldest daughter, now a teenager, was 2 years old.

This year on Tu Bishvat, which falls on January 16, the JNF will not carry out public plantings in deference to the year “shmita” — an agricultural sabbatical, prescribed by the Torah, which takes place every seven years.

The other JNF plantation debate, meanwhile, has turned what was a niche scientific discussion among environmentalists a decade ago into a recurring topic in the mainstream media, largely due to the forest devastaters that swept through JNF forests in 2010, 2016 and 2021, killing people. and animals and destroying homes.

Bedouin protesters during a protest against a Jewish National Fund (JNF) reforestation project in the southern Israeli village of Sawe al-Atrash in the Negev desert on January 13, 2022. (Menahem Kahana /AFP via Getty Images)

Yaakov Franko, a lawyer specializing in landscape law, led one of the first public discussions of the issue in 2005, in a Globes op-ed titled “Seven of the Pine Troubles.”

He claimed that the trees, mainly Aleppo pines, are an invasive species and that each pine “is like a gallon of gasoline”.

“Sap, needles, acorns, trunks burn quickly, spreading through broken limbs near the root system, where no other plant can grow and get wet.

“That’s why a single cigarette butt can light up the area between Hadera and Gedera,” he continued, naming towns on opposite ends of central Israel.

The pines were chosen because they “remind JNF leaders of their homeland in snowy Europe,” wrote Franco, who is a Sephardic Jew. “Luckily they weren’t from Mexico, otherwise we would have had peyote cactus forests,” he joked.

JNF defended its signature tree in two items published in Globes, claiming that Aleppo pines were neither an invasive species nor particularly flammable. They were chosen after other species were found to be less resilient or slower to grow, JNF wrote.

Still, JNF sometimes brags about the European feel of its forests. A promotional article on their website from 2013 states that the German Black Forest “has nothing on us.” And many hikers take advantage of it. On a recent Saturday, Daniel Kobi, a father of two from Kiryat Ata, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he liked coming to the forest named after his suburb of Haifa because “it’s like the Alps Swiss were just around the corner” from his home. .

The tree debate returned and intensified after the 2010 fire in Carmel, which consumed over 6,000 acres and killed 44 people.

“It is the most maligned tree in Israel. Pines are responsible for all evils: fires, devastating natural plants. You name it,” Klil Adar, Head of JNF Forestry Department, wrote on one of their websites in 2019. He called the claims “myths” and said the pines “will continue to be the backbone of reforestation efforts” in Israel.

Adar is correct about the native references of the Aleppo pine, according to Tamir Klein, botanist in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences at the Weizemann Institute of Science. While JNF used some invasive species, including Australian eucalyptus, Aleppo pine has grown in Israel for millennia.

Corn JNF extended the scope of the tree beyond any previous point in history, according to Klein and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

The end result is radically different from the much denser, lower timbers that would have occurred naturally in this part of the Mediterranean.

With their large crowns, Aleppo pines leave very little sun to the lower shrubs. And they throw down a thick blanket of needles that impedes the growth of most plants and almost all the flowers adorning Israel’s countryside – including its 30 species of orchids and 16 species of irises.

This means that forests planted by JNF tend to have much lower biodiversity than natural Mediterranean forests which support a multitude of insects, reptiles, birds and mammals.

Lior Weitz and his family plant trees in the Mishmar Ayalon forest near Jerusalem, January 20, 2019. (Lior Weitz)

One of the fauna, the green lizard, a dazzling creature that can reach 17 inches in length, has gone from abundant to rare. Various species of snakes and scorpions have increasingly moved to urban areas as their natural habitat has diminished.

But the natural woods were largely felled long before the JNF planted pines in their place, said Weizmann Institute scientist Klein.

“The region of Israel has been overexploited for millennia. The local natural woods had been severely suppressed for centuries before the JNF started planting trees,” he told JTA. The planted woods, for all their environmental problems, “have transformed unvegetated pastures into natural habitats at a time when the world’s forests have shrunk mainly due to logging and urbanization,” he added. .

But the original vegetation may be making a comeback, thanks to pine trees, he added.

In the shade of the pines, low vegetation begins to grow, replacing the pines wherever they succumb to disease. “So there’s a diversification that happens naturally, and the pines were the palliative that made that happen,” Klein said.

Meanwhile, the link between wildfires and the abundance of pine trees, rich in highly flammable oils, continues to be a point of contention among professionals.

The Nature and Parks Authority declares pine trees are more flammable than others and their acorns burst in fires and spread the conflagration.

Yavlovich, the JNF forester, disputes this claim. “Massive burning pines make great pictures, so they have a bad reputation. But they are no more flammable than many other local trees. Olive trees burn for hours. Palm trees ignite like torches,” said Yavlovich: Fire prevention is achieved through debris clearance and early detection, not species selection, he argued.

Reforestation is a long-term effort that needs to be looked at over many years, Yavlovich said, and JNF has diversified its use of species. (JNF in 2019 said it imports Turkish and Canarian pines, both introduced species, to diversify conifer populations.)

“Pine was the right choice for its time from a practical point of view, but also from a forest management point of view. It separated the natural lands, protected them and will slowly give way to local species,” he said.

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