Can’t see the forest for the trees? Environmental debate restarts on KKL forests

Forests harm biodiversity, says Society for Protection of Nature in Israel; KKL insists trees stop desertification; and a senior ecologist says both bodies have outdated ideas

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Shrubland in Nahal Dishon
Shrubland in Nahal Dishon

For decades, no Zionist home in the Diaspora was complete without a blue charity box into which coins of all denominations would be dropped to help fund the planting of forests in Israel.

Those donations made their way to the KKL-JNF Jewish National Fund, which, since its founding in 1901, has planted 240 million trees on 920,000 dunams (more than 227,300 acres) of land.

KKL forests all over the country are popular sites for hiking, biking, picnics and other recreation.

But a report recently published in English warns that forests planned for open areas of Israel, where trees are naturally scarce, could harm biodiversity and contravene Israel’s international commitment to biodiversity conservation.

In the report, SPNI biodiversity policy manager Alon Rothschild asks why natural, open areas need to be converted into man-made forests, especially at a time of global warming when large parts of Israel are slated to become drier and it is precisely the drought-adapted natural vegetation that is most likely to survive.

A child holds up a KKL-JNF blue box to collect donations in this undated photo. The blue box was one of the first ways to raise money for the fledgling organization. (Courtesy KKL-JNF)

“In the eyes of many people, the deliberation regarding afforestation of open natural areas is considered an ‘internal argument’ between environmental organizations, which ostensibly deals with nuances,” Rothschild writes. “However, the decision whether to plant natural areas or leave them in their natural state is critical from an environmental, scenic and ethical aspect.”

Long-running dispute

The report rekindles a decades-long argument between the “hands-off nature” SPNI and the more interventionist KKL.

The KKL has hit back, saying much of the arid world is planting trees to halt the advance of global warming-related desertification, in which arid areas turn into desert and lose their vegetation and wildlife, and that forests contribute to the regeneration of degraded land in Israel that has seen human intervention — and therefore cannot be regarded as pristine — for thousands of years.

The SPNI is Israel’s leading environmental NGO. KKL was established in 1901 to acquire land on which a Jewish state could be established and began planting forests in 1904. It serves as the Jewish people’s custodian for 13 percent of the land, the management of which is carried out by the Israel Lands Authority. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority is responsible for nature parks and reserves that cover around 25 per cent of the country.

Asked to adjudicate, one of Israel’s senior ecologists, Prof. Moshe Shachak, told The Times of Israel this week that all three organizations responsible for nature in Israel were guided by too much ideology and too little science, did not sufficiently coordinate with one another,  and were largely cut off from academia and the “revolution in scientific thinking.”

A cyclist on a bike path in the Jerusalem forest, May 3, 2018. (Courtesy JNF/KKL)

A biodiversity hotspot

Israel straddles the seam between the world’s Mediterranean and desert biomes and is located at the meeting point between Africa, Asia and Europe.

Despite its tiny size — it is just a bit bigger than the US state of New Jersey and Wales in the UK — its location at a continental crossroad and its varied topography has made it a recognized international biodiversity hotspot. Israel’s multiple ecosystems are home to a rich selection of fauna and flora, including many species found nowhere else in the world.

An Asian Houbara, a ground-nesting species characteristic of loess plains and absent from areas in which trees have been planted. (Asaf Meyrose)

The SPNI report says that open areas make up around half the lands currently slated for afforestation via three routes: within the framework of the National Outline Plan for Forests and Afforestation (NOP 22), a joint project of KKL, the ILA and various ministries that was approved by the government in 1995; by the ILA (with the KKL implementing the work) to “assert ownership” (meaning to prevent illegal settlement by groups such as the Bedouin); and via detailed forest plans that the KKL is submitting to local and district planning committees.

The Spectacled Warbler, an endangered species of bird that lives in shrubland. (Avner Rinot)

Yet, these open lands are among the most endangered ecosystems in Israel, the report warns. Not only are they under the greatest threat of development for housing, infrastructure and farming as a result of a longstanding Israeli idea that treeless “wilderness” must be settled; they are also underrepresented in nature reserves and national parks run by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, with the result that they are under-protected.

The open areas at risk, according to the SPNI, include natural grassland ecosystems in regions such as the Golan Heights, eastern Galilee and Samaria foothills; Mediterranean shrublands (known by botanists as batha) characterized by perennial shrubs, herbaceous (non-woody) plants, annuals and spring bulbs; the semi-steppe shrublands of the southern Hebron hills and eastern Samaria; plains of loess — dust blown from the Sinai desert and North Africa to the northern Negev thousands of years ago; and the fossilized sand (kurkar) ridges and red, iron-rich hamra sands of the coastal and Sharon plains.

“Afforestation frequently involves the use of heavy mechanical equipment, building earth embankments for channeling runoff (mainly in the Northern Negev), digging planting holes with excavators, spraying herbicides against ‘weeds’ (the natural vegetation…), and of course, planting trees that conflict with the natural character of the site, unleashing a chain of negative ecological effects,” the report charges.

Forests cause shade, damage delicate soil crusts, and introduce alien species of plant that can then invade other natural areas.

Batha shrubland in the Lahav area, southern Israel. ( Alon Rothschild)
Flowering loess plain. (Alon Rothschild)

“As a rule, the natural shrubland, grassland and loess flats ecosystems (as well as sandy and kurkar areas), as a complex of natural open landscape, changes dramatically as a result of afforestation. Specialist animal species, from arthropods, (invertebrates) reptiles, birds and even mammals, are displaced and cannot maintain sustainable populations in converted areas,” the report says.

Grassland in the Golan Heights. (Alon Rothschild)

It continues, “Afforestation in desert transition areas could adversely affect Israel’s efforts to reduce its climate change footprint, because for now the forests in the northern Negev and southern Hebron Mountains have a warming effect on global climate.”

This, Rothschild claims, is because dark patches of forest reflect back less solar radiation than light desert soils to an extent that outweighs the benefits of the trees’ ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the air.

Alon Rothschild, biodiversity policy manager at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. (Courtesy)

In the sensitive conditions of the northern Negev, “current findings indicate that afforestation activity… has damaged the soil and increased soil erosion and desertification processes in the decade following its implementation.”

Moreover, turning these open areas into forests will contravene international biodiversity targets for the decade to 2020 which Israel signed in 2010 after ratifying the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1995, the report charges.  These include sustainably managing and conserving biodiversity in areas under forestry and improving  the conservation status of known threatened species.

KKL responds

“If you don’t want any planting at all in open areas then there’s no method [of forestry that will be acceptable], but it’s a negative attitude,” a senior KKL official told The Times of Israel.

He insisted that planting forests in open areas such as the Negev desert mirrored efforts throughout the Mediterranean Basin, the African Sahel and belts around the Sahara desert to halt the advance of desertification that global warming was causing.

In and around Negev towns and cities such as Beersheba, Ofakim and Netivot, boundary-line forests protected residents from the worst effects of sandstorms and provided recreational facilities, he went on. Trees, he added, helped prevent soil erosion.

Today, 80% to 90% of KKL’s plantings in Mediterranean area forests were native  broadleaf (as opposed to the once widely planted and now equally widely criticized  coniferous) species, the official pointed out, providing room for shade-loving native cyclamen plants, trees for birds of prey such as falcons and short-toed eagles, and a home for growing numbers of gazelle.

A Palestinian mountain gazelle. (CC BY-SA 3.0 Bassem18/Wikipedia)

“It’s time we saw our forests as part of the ecological corridors [through which fauna and seeds of flora can pass] that cross Israel, together with nature reserves and agricultural areas,” he said.

The official added that forests — planted on only around 5% of Israel’s land — contributed to restoration of degraded land.

The debate ‘moved on long ago’

Shachak, the veteran ecologist, who at 83 still works at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and is responsible for all 13 of the country’s long-term ecological research sites (six of which are run by the KKL), said that while the SPNI, KKL and INPA had many “good, intelligent people, with good intentions” and were carrying out good work in their fields, they were locked into outdated ideas and failing to keep up with advances in scientific thinking in Israel and worldwide.

Prof Moshe Shachak of Ben Gurion University. (YouTube screenshot)

“They need to cooperate more and to base their work more on ecological science.”

While it was legitimate and common for scientists to disagree, the SPNI’s report was “amateur” and “not serious from a scientific point of view,” he said. “If I was asked to improve a nuclear power station, I would need the relevant background to do it.”

And if the conversation 15 years ago was about protecting biodiversity and preserving certain species, today it was about ecosystem services, he said —  Services provided by nature including temperature regulation, soil erosion prevention, water purification and waste decomposition.

“Nature that has been interfered with by humans does not go back to how it was — that’s a 19th century romantic idea. The ecological system is one of the most complex things in nature. You cannot approach it from just one discipline.

“The question to ask today is how we can ensure life support systems in an era where land use is changing and the earth is warming, in an  environment which consists of complex, adaptive and dynamic interactions involving rock, soil, water, air, and living organisms, including human beings.”

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