One Tree at a Time

In the aftermath of the Carmel fire, Israel's green organizations must now tackle the largest experiment in environmental alteration and management since the Hula Lake was drained over 50 years ago

As the Carmel fire raged, Isfiya resident Salman Abu Rukun - a veteran at the Nature and Parks Authority who assisted the firefighters in their efforts - slowly made his way up from a gully, fighting back tears as the landscapes of his life went up in flames.

"We must now decide what we want the region to consist of," he said. "What we need, above all, is an area we'll be able to manage."

The aftermath of this month's massive fire means the country's green organizations are now facing the largest experiment in environmental alteration and management since the Hula Lake was drained over 50 years ago. While nature has impressive self-healing powers, the Carmel landscapes are also surrounded by communities and crowded with visitors. Human intervention is therefore necessary - in arranging everything from a comprehensive plan for the forest to the height of each individual tree.

A government steering committee headed by Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan has been put in charge of rehabilitation and has already begun its work. The committee will have to raise money, develop resources and work in cooperation with bodies like the Jewish National Fund, which is interested in developing the forest for recreational purposes, and the Nature and Parks Authority, which is primarily seeking to preserve the ecological systems.

The panel will also have to take into account interested parties such as the Druze, who are suffering from a housing shortage and want to expand their towns into areas designated to be part of the park. They are asking, for example, that Har Shakuf not be annexed as park land and that an area be allotted for an organized waste disposal site for Isfiya. At both the Nature and Parks Authority and at the JNF, an organization that in the past was focused on endless planting, they've made it clear that rehabilitation of the forest will be based on the natural recovery of vegetation.

"Our slogan for Tu Bishvat [Jewish Arbor Day] is a change in ethos - not to plant trees but rather to thin them, in order to create a more natural and sturdier forest," said the head of the science division at the Nature and Parks Authority, Dr. Yehoshua Shkedi.

"We estimate that an area covering 40,000 dunams was damaged in the fire - of which 5,00 dunams are planted forest and the rest natural forest," says the head of JNF's northern district, Dr. Omri Boneh. "The vast majority of those forests include Jerusalem pine trees, which are indigenous, and oak trees."

According to Boneh, the JNF will not make any efforts at this time to cut down burnt trees or treat the soil. "We need to wait and see the extent of the damage, and it will be a few months before we can determine which trees have been damaged in a way that prevents them from being revitalized," he says. "There are patches and islands on the ground where trees were damaged less, so it will be necessary to see in the spring the trees to which the trees in those areas are actually budding."

Growing density

Several years ago, ecologist Dr. Shosh Ashkenazi compiled a comprehensive report on the Carmel region for the JNF and the Nature and Parks Authority. Analysis of aerial photographs from the first half of the 20th century reveals a density of two to three pine trees on every dunam in the Carmel region, and around 50 years later, the density had shot up to more than 100 pines per dunam. This was due to the decline of traditional grazing, which had thinned the trees, along with increased planting. Because of their ability to disperse a large number of seeds after a fire, the pine trees only spread after every blaze.

A future vision for the planted forests in Israel and their intended social and environmental functions was formulated last year by a group of six senior researchers in the field of forestry - from the Agricultural Research Organization at Beit Dagan, the University of Haifa, and the Hebrew University agriculture faculty in Rehovot. The proposal allotted 10 percent of the area of the planted forests for recreation sites, visitor centers and hiking. The rest of the areas would provide "ecological services," such as maintaining a variety of flora and fauna, supplying shelter for animals in the forest, ensuring soil stabilization, and of course, providing a natural landscape for the general public.

The forest must therefore be as varied as possible in its makeup. There may also be a need for intentional thinning, which leaves trees more resistant to arid conditions, following concern about climate change in the region.

How to control future blazes

Another major task will be ensuring that, in the future, we will be able to control large fires. A park must be planned in such a location where, if there are fires, they will not spread to settled areas - and this is the purpose of the separation zones scientists are proposing along the perimeters of inhabited areas and strategic spots within the forest, such as ridge lines.

"Everyone wants a pine branch in his home in order to feel connected to nature, but forests situated near communities must be thinned to prevent fires," agrees Shkedi. "It may also be necessary to do this near the Hai-Bar nature reserve [for wild animals]. Paving roads through wooded areas to enable access for firefighters on the ground is still a controversial issue."

"Forests and woods that are too dense are one of the factors that cause fires to spread. We need to more effectively thin them through means like grazing," Shkedi continues. "However, it is also necessary to prevent too many new roads from being carved out, which could result in damage because they will enable visitors to more easily go deeper into the territory and create additional risks of fires. Furthermore, in the last fire we saw that what made the most difference was putting out the fire from the air."

"The areas of forest for which we are responsible have enough roads, perhaps too many," adds Boneh. "It's necessary, however, to examine the situation in other areas. What's clear is that an aerial armada, like the one we had recently, will not always be at our disposal. And even if we do have some firefighting planes at our disposal, we'll still need forces on the ground in order fully to deal with flames."

Boneh says that the Nature and Parks Authority, like the JNF, should also equip itself with firefighting vehicles. Sources at the authority say they have tried to do so, but to date have received only two fire engines which are so old they were returned to the state.

"We thought of selling them as collectors' items," one source at the authority said cynically. "That way we'd have had money to buy suitable firefighting vehicles."