Israel Environment Bulletin Autumn 1992-5753, Vol. 15, No. 4


Following his visit to the Holy Land in 1865, Mark Twain wrote: "It is a desolate country, which sits in sackcloth and ashes, a silent mournful expanse, which not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life." It has been the JNF’s mission, since its inception at the Fifth Zionist Congress in 1901, to revitalize the desolate land.

Was the mission fulfilled? The facts speak for themselves: reclamation of over 500,000 acres (200,000 hectares) of swampland and difficult terrain; preparation of the infrastructure for 1,100 rural villages; construction of over 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) of access roads and forest paths; establishment of reservoirs and dams to bolster Israel’s scarce water supply; planting of over 190 million trees across an area of 80,000 hectares; maintenance and improvement of 40,000 hectares of natural forest; and creation of 14 major parks and 300 recreational sites.

Afforestation Begins

According to historical evidence, the Land of Israel was extensively covered with forests in ancient times. Over the years, however, settlers used the forests for building and heating, sheep and goats destroyed natural scrub forests, railways consumed huge amounts of wood, and the many wars fought in the region led to massive tree destruction, often for the use of armies.

When Jewish settlement was renewed at the turn of the century, limited afforestation began. By the time the State of Israel was established, there was a total of about 4,500 hectares of forest in the country, half of which had been planted by the JNF and the other half by the British Mandatory Government. Following the establishment of the state, earnest afforestation began in all suitable parts of the countryin areas unsuitable for intensive farming, around sandy areas to stabilize the dunes and prevent drifts, and near urban centers to provide the public with recreational facilities. The rate of planting increased from fewer than 1,000 hectares annually during the first years of statehood to some 2,000 hectares a year today.

Prior to the establishment of the state and for about twenty years afterwards, the majority of trees planted in Israel’s forests were evergreens, particularly Jerusalem pine (pinus halpensis) in the mountainous areas and eucalyptus (especially eucalyptus rostrate) in the south. Pines in general and Jerusalem pines in particular were found to be hardy, drought-resistant and quick to take root, even on rocky land. The planting of eucalyptus trees began with the early settlers at the turn of the century, as an effective means of drying out swamp areas which were breeding grounds for malaria- bearing mosquitoes. Following the establishment of the state, eucalyptuses were planted along the coastal plain and in the Negev, in large clumps and in protective barriers along roadsides and paths, and at the edge of sand dunes and cultivated fields.

Since 1970, additional varieties of trees have been added to Israel’s landscapewhether to replace trees damaged by pests and arboreal diseases (e.g. the Jerusalem pine was attacked by a deadly insect which caused the wilting of large forest areas), to adapt trees to the different topography of the country or to reintroduce those tree species which were part of the biblical landscape of Israel (e.g. various varieties of oak). In the winter of 1992, yet another consideration was added: last year’s snowfall uprooted a million trees throughout the country, predominantly in high- altitude areas in the north and central regions. Ironically, the Jerusalem pinethe very tree that was originally favored for its ability to grow quickly in shallow soilwas the major victim. To overcome the problem, the JNF intends to plant a greater variety of trees at each site; if one species loses its grip under the burden of heavy snow, others will hold the soil in place.

During the decades of JNF’s existence, changes and adjustments were made to accommodate new situations, not only with regard to new varieties but in response to the ever-constant threat of man- induced forest fires. Towards the end of the ’80s, JNF faced a new challenge: guarding the forests against fires deliberately set by arsonists. To strengthen defenses against future fires, JNF has begun to build additional forest roads (to serve as fire breaks and permit quicker access to fire-fighting crews), to construct additional lookout towers, to create a reinforced network of patrol teams to deter potential arsonists and provide early warning, to purchase additional fire engines and communication equipment and to strengthen and increase standby fire-fighting units.

Southward Bound

In the 1980s, forests took on a more varied aspect with the construction of hundreds of picnic spots and the development of forests and parkland for recreational purposes, especially in the south of the country. Some 25% of all the plantings in the ’80s were carried out in the Negev, increasing its forest area to a total of 18,000 hectares. While there was never any intention of making Israel’s desert areas something they are not, a land of green forests, the JNF did seek to make the arid land pleasanter for human habitation and enjoymentby adding shade, water and greenery.

Greening strategies implemented by the JNF since 1948 have succeeded in pushing the edge of the desert southward, actually reversing the process of desertification. By trapping water, wherever possible, about 250 small groves, known as limans, have been developed in the Negev, primarily on roadsides and along highways, in wadis and wherever water can be channelled. Mostly eucalyptus, the trees shoot up, creating sudden, unexpected patches of green amid the yellow-gray desert expanses.

JNF’s most recent program, savannization, proposes the widescale planting of single trees or clusters of trees in areas where prevailing climatic conditions do not permit woodlands or shrubs to grow without substantial human intervention. A pilot planting is now being carried out in a 120 hectare area north of Beersheba. Here, in the Duda’im Valley and in other arid areas of the Negev, new methods of "harvesting" scarce natural precipitation are being implemented: rainwater is collected and channelled along trenches ploughed in terraces across hill slopes to irrigate trees and lowlying shrubs, mini-catchment wells are dug alongside individual trees to collect winter rains which can then permeate the soil and provide moisture to roots during the remaining dry months of the year, trees are planted behind artificially-created protective earth walls to bank up run-off waters. These innovative methods make it possible for trees to grow in areas with 100-250 mm of rain a year or even less.

With less than 50% of the Negev’s scarce rainwater now permeating into the underground water table, the JNF has initiated a number of large-scale water conservation projects, building dams and reservoirs, some the size of lakes. These newly-constructed reservoirs have not only been of immense importance in terms of Israel’s water crisis, but have contributed to the development of tourist attractions, doubling as artificial lakes in such parks as Yeroham and Timna Parks where visitors can avail themselves of the pleasures of boating, in the heart of the Negev desert.

On the International Front

JNF places high priority on research and development in the quest for improved technology in all spheres of land development and afforestation. Working partly in conjunction with other academic institutions, both local and foreign, projects include searching for superior select tree species, growing new agricultural crops in brackish waters, halting soil erosion, pushing back encroaching desert sands, reducing inflammable forest underbrush, and checking the effect of controlled cattle grazing zones, to name but a few.

On the international front, as an organization devoted to "guarding the earth," the JNF can offer assistance and guidance to a world faced by unprecedented environmental threats. JNF has accepted this challenge by participating in the International Arid Lands Consortium, an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to exploring the specific problemsand possibilitiesof arid and semi-arid regions. Consortium participants include the University of Arizona, University of Illinois, New Mexico State University, South Dakota State University, Texas A & I University, the Jewish National Fund and the USDA Forest Service. In June 1991, 15 members of the Consortium visited Israel to personally view JNF accomplishments in rolling back the desertincluding arid zone afforestation, land preparation for agriculture, water harvesting, soil conservation, savannization and the use of saline water. The Consortium’s research is expected to benefit the world’s developing nations, most of which are located in arid and semi-arid climates and already suffer from intolerable levels of desertification and famine.

A Look Forward

In the coming decades, afforestation will become more and more sophisticated, with the introduction of new tree varieties and greater integration between natural scrub and planted forests. Trees and forests will be subject to increasing scientific scrutiny and more intensive tending of each forest will be required. JNF, in the next decade, will increasingly concentrate on water conservation, the creation of reservoirs, improvement of the underground water table, and the prevention of erosion and flooding. Moreover, the educational and social aspects of JNF’s work will remain high on the priority list.

JNF’s work is currently being introduced into the educational system with the help of an organization of volunteer teachers, the Teachers’ Movement for the JNF. This organization has designed innovative educational programs to foster public welfare in general and to raise the awareness of youngsters regarding such subjects as land reclamation, countryside beautification, and the greening of the desert in particular. Each year, some 20,000 Jewish youngsters, from Israel and abroad, register hundreds of thousands of work hours in forest woodlands. In 1991 alone, some 10,000 Israeli children, 4,000 young immigrants and 2,500 Jewish children from the Diaspora took part in dozens of summer camps throughout the country, integrating forestry and archeological digs with studies and tours.

Thousands of young adults, including visiting college students, youth movement groups and volunteers, are profiting from the programs offered by JNF’s Young Leadership Department, Dor Hemshech. The hands-on experience offered to thousands of oversease students and young immigrants in forestry work, study seminars and field trips, becomes their living bridge to the land of Israel.

Within the framework of the Dor Hemshech Program, overseas students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University and Bar Ilan University contribute half a day a week to helping JNF forest rangers prepare soil for tree planting, tree pruning and clearing the sites adopted by their respective campuses. The 7-month program, between August and May, wraps up with a festive ceremony at which each student is issued a JNF "graduation certificate" marking his or her brief but productive association with the soil of Israel. Other youngsters join in JNF forest tending through Jewish organizations which have planted forests or young leadership missions.

Dor Hemshech also sponsors seminars and field trips to introduce students to the physical and human landscapes of Israel. Three seminars are worthy of special mention:

o From Ideology to Ecology in which participants learn first hand about Israel’s ecological problemswater shortage, recycling, energy, waste disposal and sewage treatmentand discover how JNF has broadened its traditional mandate of improving the land to improving the quality of life and the environment for Israel’s population.

  • Ben Gurion’s Dream: the Taming of the Wilderness in which participants learn about the specifics of desert afforestation, solar energy potential and JNF site preparation for immigrant housing in the south.
  • Old and New Settlements on Mount Carmel and the Galilee in which participants meet with the inhabitants of the Galilee hilltop communities and visit natural as well as planted forests, learning about the ravages of forest fires and prevention methods.

    JNF’s afforestation efforts are a unique phenomenon in a world threatened by encroaching deserts, shrinking forests and the dangers of the "greenhouse effect." Israel’s forests, nurtured with love, symbolize the national rebirth of the Jewish People in its ancestral homeland, but the dream could not have been fulfilled without the dedicated work of thousands of professionals and volunteers. The message is clear; it is up to us to heed it: "Like afforestation, developing leaders and informed citizens requires careful nurturing. The mere planting of a seed is not enough."