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The Jewish National Fund is planting increasing numbers of trees in the northern Negev. The organization says it is doing essential work to prevent desertification and to assist in the rehabilitation of the ecosystem, and even presented the work proudly at a workshop on desertification held in Israel last week for experts from around the world. However, environmental protection specialists contend that the forestation causes serious and irreparable damage to nature and the landscape. Critics suggest that one goal of the planting, rather than being environmental, is actually to prevent illegal Bedouin construction or grazing.

In recent months, preparation for planting and the planting itself has been going on east of the Bedouin town of Hura. Heavy mechanical equipment belonging to the JNF has uprooted existing vegetation to make way for the new planting. An expert on soil conservation who visited the area recently said that following the work the area looked like "a quarry after blasting" has taken place.

According to Dr. Yehoshua Shkedi, director of the science division of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the JNF does important work in combating such problems as soil erosion. But he says the work in the Hura area and elsewhere in the northern Negev is damaging the land by the use of heavy equipment.

"This is done in many cases without proper planning and changes areas containing a rich variety of unique plants and animals," Shkedi says. "We've spoken to the JNF people about this a number of times and have tried to persuade them to change the way they work, but nothing helps."

Another major contention of ecologists is that the trees the JNF is planting serve as a convenient base for "biological invasion" - the moving in of species that are not indigenous to the area, such as mice, rats, crows and other bird species. They take advantage of the comfortable conditions provided by the trees, prey on local animals and dominate the food sources.

"The Yatir area is one of the last remnants of an area of plants and animals typical to the edge of the desert," says Yoav Perlman, an ecologist with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. "All the animals that developed there have gotten used to an environment in which there are only shrubs. When trees are planted there, birds of prey like shrikes or kestrels come in and finish off the local animals. Everything that's special about the area is hit."

Shkedi gives the example of the leopard fringe-fingered lizard, a rare species that lives only in the Be'er Sheva area, and which is devoured by invading species.

Some experts note that the purpose of the planting is to keep illegal Bedoin construction at bay. This might be logical for the state in terms of land management policies, they say, but it has no ecological justification.

JNF experts say in response that the areas undergoing forestation have already been degraded by overgrazing, and the goal of the planting is to "restore the ecosystem to proper functioning."

The spokesman's office of the JNF responds that, "Most of the areas in question are included in the national master plan for forestation, and are being planted by the JNF because it is the body responsible for this work. The planting has also been approved by the Agriculture Ministry. A soil and vegetation survey is implemented before planting in coordination with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. As part of the work, the JNF saw to the protection of the sternbergia flowers there."