Carmel Forest fire
The charred remains of part of the Carmel Forest in wake of massive blaze. Photo by Alon Ron
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Forests and wooded areas, from the Galilee via the Carmel and down to the northern Negev, are perhaps the most obvious change wrought by Zionism upon the landscape of the Land of Israel. This has been accomplished by both widespread plantings and by reduced grazing, which makes natural growth possible. Now, though, of all times, when the forests are threatened by climate change and fires, Israel has a serious shortage of experts in the management and planning of these areas - that is, of forestry scientists.

Forestry scientists examine the overall condition of a forest and decide the extent to which planting or thinning out of trees is necessary. In Israel - a relatively arid country, many of whose forests were artificially created over the past 100 years - management of these areas requires special knowledge. The profession can be learned here and abroad.

Today, though, Israel has only person working full-time as a forest scientist: Dr. Yagil Osem, of the Volcani Agricultural Research Institute at Beit Dagan. All the other local authorities and research institutes have experts in related fields, such as ecologists, but no forestry experts per se. Hence the concern that without more professionals, Israel will have difficulty repairing damage such as that caused by the Carmel fire, and will also suffer in terms of the planning of future forests.

Prof. Gabi Schiller, a retired forestry scientist, recently wrote that at least 200 researchers in Israel are involved in managing agricultural lands (covering 3.3 million dunams, or over 820,000 acres ), as compared to only one researcher for forests (which cover about 2 million dunams ).

"The relation between the size of the areas and the number of scientists demonstrates how little importance the country attributes to the care of forests, to the point of neglecting them," claims Schiller. The shortage of forestry scientists, he adds, undermines the ability not only to rehabilitate forests which have been hit by fires, but also to deal with the effects of climate change on them and, in general, to preserve the ecosystems of the forests and their development for tourism.

Up until a few years ago, the Volcani Institute, a research body belonging to the Agriculture Ministry, had five to seven forestry experts. But gradually, some of the positions were eliminated (as in other areas of research at Volcani ), or no replacements were appointed for those who retired. "The shortage of forestry scientists is known and is being handled," said a source at the institute this week, "and will be discussed at the next meeting of the hiring committee."

The field of forest research emerged here in the 1930s. After the state's establishment, those employed in the field worked at a research station operated by the Agriculture Ministry. Its activity was later transferred to the Jewish National Fund - which, to this day, manages most of the forests in the country. Two decades ago forestry science was restored to the ministry's care, but then the number of researchers began to shrink.

"The only scientific library on the subject of forestry was dismantled," complains Schiller. "Parts of it were scattered among several libraries and other parts were destroyed."

Furthermore, Schiller claims that the JNF allocates meager resources to forest research and does not employ experts with the relevant knowledge. He also accuses the fund of being far more interested in public relations for the purpose of receiving donations, since forests do a good job of speaking to the hearts - and pockets - of donors.

"Diminished research budgets do not allow for scientific momentum of the kind taking place in other countries," Schiller notes. "That's why it's also impossible to solve problems."

Ecologist Prof. Avi Perevolotsky, of the Volcani Institute, says the JNF never developed a forest-management philosophy that is adapted to local conditions.

"They have no chief scientist, as the Nature and National Parks Authority has, for example," he says, but he notes that the paucity of professionals also stems from a shortage of job slots at the Volcani Institute. "There are several researchers like me and in other institutions who are actually ecologists, but who are interested in forestry, but there are no scholars for whom this is their job and their field of expertise."

Dr. Yochai Carmel, of the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, fits into the same category as Perevolotsky. He says he and his colleagues who are not forestry experts are not able to "integrate all of the necessary knowledge that would make it possible to study and understand the forest properly."

A spokesman for the JNF said in response: "There are people with degrees from academic institutions in the relevant fields. In addition, a respectable portion of the professionals have studied for master's degrees under the aegis of the U.S. Forest Service. No other green organization here has professionals with advanced knowledge and rich experience like the JNF."

As an example of its activity, the spokesman noted that it invests more than $1 million annually on forestry studies and has established a foundation specializing in the subject of forestation in an era of global warming. He also said that the director of the Forest Department serves as the chief scientist of the JNF.

Perevolotsky is convinced that the responsibility for forestry research must not be left in the hands of the JNF. "We have to develop an academic track that will train people in forestry, and we can be assisted by experts from abroad. The fact that this hasn't been done is related to the fact that it was convenient for the government to leave the responsibility in the hands of the JNF. Executive organizations like the JNF don't accumulate up-to-date scientific knowledge. That's why when there's a problem in managing a forest or preserving other natural sites, these groups need scientists from outside who are capable of looking critically at the issues."

The paucity of local forest research is already becoming evident, claims Schiller, for example in the way the country has dealt with the widespread death of pine trees in recent years. He says that the cause of that epidemic - which is related to the crossbreeding of various species of the tree which have been planted here - was discovered only because the U.S. Forest Service, rather than an Israeli agency, studied the subject.