To plant or not to plant? That is the question that American Jews have been asking after receiving conflicting messages from leading environmental organizations about how to help replenish Israeli forests after a series of devastating fires began on November 22.
More than 1,700 brushfires — some believed to have been caused by arson — ravaged tens of thousands of dunams in areas throughout the country. Woodlands, grasslands and protected parklands, as well as planted forests, were affected. Some 700 homes were damaged or destroyed, as well.
The American Jewish community heeded the call, with more than 10,000 donors contributing $6 million so far. Some $2 million came in online as small donations from individual donors, a quarter of whom were new to the JNF donor database, according to JNF CEO Russell F. Robinson.
For American Jews who grew up dropping coins into JNF “blue boxes” or who tithed bar and bat mitzvah gift money to make Israel’s “desert bloom,” donating to the 115-year-old JNF following the recent fires seemed natural.
However, as reported by The Times of Israel on November, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel strongly advised against tree-planting in areas affected by the fires. This led JNF donors to wonder whether their money was going toward a potentially detrimental reforestation initiative.
“From an ecological standpoint, these fires do not qualify as a disaster. Nature can handle them on its own without any human intervention,” SPNI ecologist Dr. Ofri Gabay told The Times of Israel, discouraging reforestation efforts.
Explaining that the burnt forests would rejuvenate on their own over time, SPNI called on people to not only resist the urge to plant trees, but also to avoid visiting affected areas for fear of disturbing the natural ecological balance.
In a column that appeared earlier this week as a Times of Israel blog, SPNI director of partnerships and development Jay Shofet specifically named JNF and its Israeli partner organization Keren Kayemet Leyisrael (KKL) as organizations advocating actions that “would do irreversible damage to Israel’s already weakened ecosystem.”
JNF CEO Robinson dismissed the suggestion that his New York-headquartered organization’s approach toward helping Israel recover from the recent fires was misguided. He said JNF planned on growing millions of trees, planting some now and cultivating or regenerating others by scraping bark from burnt trees to spur on new growth.
“You just need to look at the Carmel Forest and drive up that road and see the green that is coming out of that mountain. This proves that KKL’s scientific methodology is good and proven,” Robinson asserted, referring to JNF-funded reforestation following a huge and deadly fire on Mount Carmel in December 2010.
JNF, which partners with KKL and the Israel Fire and Rescue Authority on strategic planning, has already transferred $2 million of the funds raised since the November fires. However, this money is not going toward reforestation, but instead toward purchasing firefighting equipment and apparatus, including 23 new firetrucks so far.
“Although we all learned a lot from the Carmel Fire, Israel was still ill prepared to deal with the kinds of fires that broke out all over the country, which spread crews too thinly,” Robinson said.
‘Although we all learned a lot from the Carmel Fire, Israel was still ill prepared’
JNF and its planning partners estimate that Israel needs another 550 firetrucks and 10 more fire stations in order to be able to effectively fight fires, especially when hundreds of them break out simultaneously in multiple parts of the country.
Reforestation efforts will be decided as soon as JNF analyzes the overall land destruction of the latest series of fires, with the expectation that funds will initially go toward man hours needed for clearing out areas affected by the fires so that harmful mold doesn’t grow.
SPNI suggested that the JNF and KKL focus their efforts on raising funds for the costly process of creating necessary buffer zones between the previously wooded areas and human living areas.
Russell agreed that this is an important aspect of what needs to be done.
“Mediterranean Oak trees make great natural firebreaks,” he said.