Jewish National Fund Sees the Forest for the Trees

JNF’s new doctrine emphasizes biodiversity and natural rejuvenation, rather than soldier-like rows of pines. But the Society for Protection of Nature isn't convinced.

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

Forest administration in Israel has undergone many changes and transformations since the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael) became involved about a century ago. The organization planted trees based not only on environmental considerations, but also with an eye to buttressing the Jewish people’s control of the land, and in order to create rest and relaxation areas. The JNF claimed it would make the Negev desert bloom through forestation, and elicited protests from ecologists and environmental organizations who argued that forestation causes damage to the natural environment.

There was also internal controversy in the JNF regarding the goals and objectives of the forests, and to what degree these should be modified and brought in line with present-day environmental needs. Among other things, it was argued that more varied forests should be planted that which would not be based on long, uniform rows of pine trees.

The outcome of these discussions is a new forest administration doctrine approved by the JNF’s board of directors a few months ago. This document is supposed to provide a professional basis for the administration of sustainable forests. It adopts the definition of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, according to which a forest is an area at least 1.25 acres in size, covered by trees at least 5 meters tall.

The ultimate goal of the new forestation doctrine is “to provide the country’s residents with a variety of ecological system services.” The secondary goals derived from this include supporting Israel’s unique biological diversity, shaping the landscape, preserving land and water resources, and the preservation of open territories. There are also the more traditional goals of supplying relaxation services and utilizing the economic advantages of forests such as grazing areas and timber supply.

In order to achieve these goals, forestation will be based on natural processes rather than planned tree planting. Israel’s forests, spread over some 400,000 acres, will comprise mostly local vegetation species, with minimal human intervention. The forest’s planning and administration will be based on the preservation of biological diversity.

With this goal in mind, the JNF plans to thin out coniferous forests (mostly pines) so that other kinds of vegetation can prosper, including shrubs and grasses. The JNF also promises to undertake actions for locating and mapping important natural phenomena and preserving them. “The administration will be based on creating a diverse landscape mosaic through the cultivation of different vegetation types in the forest. This will include using instruments such as thinning and grazing,” promises the new doctrine.

Human activity will be directed to areas intended for picnicking, camping and hiking, where there will be a suitable infrastructure of roads and signs. Other areas will retain a more natural character.

The new doctrine will of course be tested on the ground, but it is important to note that the JNF has already taken some decisions regarding its commitment to the administration of more variegated forests and the preservation of nature. Its work in these areas can therefore already be reviewed, to see to what degree it reflects an ecological and sustainable management of forested territories.
Yet such a review is impeded by the fact that quite a few researchers who should be able to assess the JNF’s activity themselves receive funds from it for their research projects, which may prevent them from speaking freely.

A suitable region for examining the work of the JNF is the Negev desert. In this region the JNF insists on continuing to plant forests on widespread territories, and to shape the landscape in order to collect and control floodwaters. This is at odds with the position of environmental protection agencies, who say that the territories in question have unique characteristics which may be harmed by tree planting.

The JNF, for its part, claims that planting trees and shrubs in the Negev is intended to renew the area’s past landscape and aids in stemming desertification, preventing erosion and preserving the soil. The organization notes that the northern Negev area was mostly agricultural land until the middle of the 20th century. In the case of the forestation of the Goral hills near Be’er Sheva, the alleged intention is to create a “green envelope” for the city.

The JNF’s methods of forest administration continue to arouse suspicion among environmental organizations ? justified in the case of the Sergeants’ Grove in Netanya. According to the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, tree thinning operations performed in this grove harmed rare wild plants. The JNF countered that the works were necessary to prevent dead trees from falling on visitors, and that care was taken not to harm wild plants.

Rare iris

Further to the north there is an ongoing quarrel between the SPNI and the JNF regarding the future of areas of Mount Gilboa. The JNF intends to give these areas forest status. The SPNI is adamantly opposed to this initiative. It says that only nature reserve status can provide full protection to the indigenous flora and fauna, above all the rare Gilboa iris.

Even assuming the JNF will indeed implement its new forest management doctrine, this will not resolve the issue of its status in the field of environmental protection. Being a non-governmental organization, with additional interests such as land ownership and support of development and settlement activities, its commitment to nature preservation is inherently under question.

Some means should clearly be found to accord the JNF the same status as other governmental organizations in charge of environmental protection. The SPNI addressed this issue in its response to the new forest administration document: “We commend the new forest doctrine, but it should be emphasized that this document does not resolve a number of important gaps in the management of forested areas.

The JNF is not a government authority by law, and lacks important instruments including transparency and supervision by a public body, a public scientific board and legally approved means of enforcement for preventing environmental damage and for prohibiting entrance to areas with preservation needs. The state should manage the forested areas by means of a body empowered by law, similar to the Nature and Parks Authority.”

The family of arbutus trees on Mount Scopus, Jerusalem. Apparently a case of spontaneous birth.Credit: Ilya Melnikov

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