Woodlands and Afforestation

A National Outline Scheme for Afforestation was approved in principle by the National Planning and Building Board in 1993. The scheme designates 160,000 hectares for the development and conservation of forest lands in Israel over 15% of Israel’s total land area north of Beersheba, where most of the population is concentrated. The plan, implemented by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), seeks to integrate two legitimate, but conflicting demands: development and recreation along with conservation of natural vegetation and open spaces.

Long before approval of the masterplan, decades of planting by the JNF had resulted in the greening of barren areas throughout the country. The JNF was originally established in 1901 for the purpose of acquiring and developing land for Jewish settlement in Turkish Palestine. Immediately after its establishment, the JNF set out to reclaim the soil, drain swamps, leach out salts, and plant forests on barren hills and in sandy and desert regions. By the time the State of Israel was reborn, five million trees had taken root. By the end of 1993, the JNF had planted 200 million trees in an area of 81,000 hectares. These plus 40,000 hectares of natural woodlands provide millions of residents with the opportunity for outdoor recreation and the enjoyment of nature.

Much of the JNF’s work today is concentrated in its afforestation branch, which is responsible for tending saplings in nurseries, planting new trees, thinning and tending forest growth, preventing fire, protecting woodlands against pests and diseases, and forest recreation.

The JNF’s early plantings were predominantly composed of evergreens in mountainous areas and of eucalyptus in the south. In later years, damage from pests and arboreal diseases led to a new policy of species diversification. This policy was reinforced by the desire to cultivate tree species which were once part of the natural landscape of biblical Israel, such as various kinds of oak. While two-thirds of JNF’s afforestation efforts once focused on the Jerusalem pine, today’s forests feature a wide variety of species: oaks and carobs, terebinths and cypresses, eucalyptus, Judas trees, acacias, olive, almond and many more.

Although diseases, pests and pollution cause damage to forests in Israel, the most serious destruction is caused by fires, whether accidental or intentional. In recent years, following years of devastation which saw the destruction of over 2 million trees, efforts have focused on the development of an effective fire- prevention and fire-fighting system. Five-prevention measures now include forest roads that act as fire breaks and enable quick access to the source of a fire, an early warning system based on 45 fire observation watchtowers, a fleet of state-of-the-art fire engines and special alert squads, as well as training, research and public information campaigns.

The success of afforestation in Israel cannot be overemphasized. Forests contribute to soil conservation, prevent soil erosion, act as a barrier against dust, noise and air pollution, create shade and comfortable mini-climates for recreation, halt desertification on the border of arid zones and contribute ecologically and globally to reducing the greenhouse effect by releasing oxygen into the atmosphere and absorbing carbon dioxide. In the Negev desert, the JNF has planted some 20 million trees over an area of 16,000 hectares. Elsewhere in the country, tens of thousands of hectares of green forests grace previously barren land. Every year, about 2,000 more hectares are planted some 3 million trees.

Combating Desertification

The sustainable management and restoration of degraded arid lands are pressing problems of global proportions. In Israel, the Negev desert, which comprises over half of the country’s land area, is inhabited by only 7% of the population. Yet this arid expanse once extended further north than it does today. Strategies implemented since 1948 have succeeded in pushing the edge of the desert southward, and actually reversing the process of desertification.

In the 1980s, about 25% of all of the JNF’s plantings were carried out in the Negev; today, the percentage has risen to 50%. But the goal is by no means to forest this arid area, but rather to utilize the existing landscape and geographical resources to ameliorate conditions around Negev settlements, improve quality of life and the environment and combat desertification.

In the northern fringes of the Negev, on the edge of the desert, Israel’s largest man-planted forests (Lahav and Yatir Forests) serve as popular nature recreation venues. Trees here grow on an average annual rainfall of 280 mm, in areas where evapotranspiration rates may reach 2,000 mm. Further south, the JNF has been planting widely-spaced trees and natural grasses aimed at upgrading the quality and value of the soil and terrain. Their growth relies on advanced water harvesting techniques which capture runoff rainwater in ridges, depressions, terraces and limans (tree clusters planted in reinforced water catchment basins). Single tree planting is yet another technique used to combat desertification in areas with even harsher natural conditions. The results have made Israel a world-acclaimed leader in rolling back the desert.

The JNF’s newest program for planting single trees or clusters of trees in areas where climatic conditions do not permit woodlands or shrubs to grow without substantial human intervention is known as savannization. This experimental project, initiated in 1987, is aimed at preventing desertification and increasing productivity and biodiversity without resource enrichment. The assumption of the savannization project is that biological production and diversity in semiarid regions are related to the patchiness of the landscape. Entire watersheds are managed as whole units encompassing runoff- contributing areas (cyanobacteria, unicellular algae, lichens and mosses) and runoff-collecting patches (clumps of annual plants and shrubs). By manipulating the patchiness at various sites in the Negev and by using water harvesting techniques, some of which were first employed two thousand years ago by the Nabatean inhabitants of the area, rainfall and runoff are redirected, and relatively highly-productive patches are created within the desert landscape.

The major features of the savannization concept are the digging of pits in which runoff accumulates and the planting of trees in these pits. Israeli scientists have found that the mere disturbance of the landscape, through the construction of pits and mounds, has tripled the species diversity of annuals and increased total plant productivity tenfold.

Three savannization field sites have been set up in the Negev along a precipitation gradient of 300-100 mm annual rainfall. The sites contain both research plots and full-scale savanna areas, as well as undisturbed desert. A wide range of scientific disciplines are employed in an integrated effort to develop an ecosystemic scheme. Currently there are 12,000 hectares of established savanna in the desert, with 200-300 hectares added each year. The sites are fulfilling the objectives of the project by increasing the value of semiarid regions for recreation and conserving and promoting the biodiversity of these regions.

In light of the fact that less than 50% of rainwater in the Negev permeates into the underground water table, and most flows down gullies into the sea, new methods have been developed for flood prevention and water conservation. Dams and reservoirs have been constructed to improve the water balance, arrest the flow of flood waters, catch runoff water, replenish the underground aquifers and create tourism and recreation sites. Runoff and rainfall catchment basins have enabled the development of runoff agroforestry and farming in areas with less than sufficient rainfall. Recycled wastewater, which cannot be used for irrigating edible agricultural crops, has facilitated the planting of groves and parks in semi- arid areas, while brackish water has been used for salt-tolerant crops and for trees in recreation areas. Recent research efforts have led to the identification of crops and technologies that will allow agricultural production with water containing up to 4,000 ppm salts, thus opening new horizons for saline water-based agriculture in deserts of the Middle East and around the world.

The high priority accorded by Israel to combating desertification has led to the establishment, in January 1994, of the Center for Desert Research and Restoration Ecology in Sde Boker, a joint project of the JNF and Ben-Gurion University’s Desert Research Institute. The uniqueness of the center lies in the integration between the Institute’s academic frameworks for basic and applied research and JNF’s field experience in the development and management of open space systems.

The aims of the center are to foster understanding of desertification processes; to develop and implement sustainable development practices in arid lands aimed at halting desertification processes; to advance restoration ecology; to develop an interdisciplinary ecological approach to the scientific management of open spaces which are impacted by human activity; to serve as a focal point for international cooperation on research related to the development, conservation and management of arid lands; and to offer training and academic instruction.

Techniques developed in Israel for combating desertification have many implications for regional cooperation on desert issues. Savannization, for example, is by definition a technology for minimum-input management of arid lands, structured around holistic, ecosystemic lines and employing low-levels of intervention. It presents a gradual way of reclaiming degraded desert lands, and can be adapted to site-specific needs and means. With good management, savanna patches can provide food, grazing, fuel and recreation to local populations. It is therefore a prime example of the potential benefit of regional data transfer and cooperation in combating desertification.

Israel is an active partner in current efforts to promote both regional and international cooperation in combating desertification. The subject constitutes a priority item in the multilateral peace talks on the environment and in efforts to draft an International Convention to Combat Desertification. In recognition of Israel’s experience in this area, the first workshop of the International Arid Lands Consortium was convened in Israel in June 1994. The Consortium, an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to exploring the problems and possibilities of arid and semi-arid regions, includes several American universities, the JNF and the U.S. Forest Service. Israel, internationally renowned for its dramatic accomplishments in arid zone management, including afforestation, water harvesting, water and soil conservation, savannization and use of saline water, is the natural candidate for hosting this first workshop.