Tu Bishvat

New bill seeks to replace British mandate law on protection, planting of trees

Timed to coincide with the annual tree-planting festival of Tu Bishvat, MK Alon Tal will submit proposal to strengthen trees in the face of 21st-century challenges

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

Jewish youngsters plant trees during a Tu Bishvat event organized by the Keren Kayemet LeIsrael in the Ben Shemen forest, February 6, 2012.  (Omer Miron/Flash90)
Jewish youngsters plant trees during a Tu Bishvat event organized by the Keren Kayemet LeIsrael in the Ben Shemen forest, February 6, 2012. (Omer Miron/Flash90)

Other than dog poop on the sidewalks and parking disputes, few local issues get people as worked up as the felling of a beloved tree.

But the importance of trees goes far beyond neighborhood squabbles and human emotion.

Trees provide oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide. By holding the soil together, they help to prevent rainwater run-off, floods, and erosion. They provide shade, helping to keep temperatures down. And they provide food and shelter for large numbers of creatures that perform important roles in our ecosystems.

It is in this spirit that Blue and White party lawmaker Alon Tal will submit a bill on Monday — the Tu Bishvat tree-planting holiday — to create the first comprehensive forestry law in Israel for a century.

Tree planting and forestry in Israel is still regulated by the 1926 “Forests Ordinance” from the British Mandate. That law remains similar to a 1921 version, adopted soon after the British conquered Palestine from the Ottoman armies in World War I.

“Since that time, modifications and amendments of the ordinance have been extremely modest. Given the significance of Israel’s trees and forests to human health, recreation, ecological corridors, species preservation, and climate change, it is high time that Israel adopts legislation which is appropriate for the national and global challenges of the 21st century,” said Tal, a former professor of environmental policy and a former chair of the committee that oversees forestry for the Jewish National Fund international board.

The bill sets out to strengthen and anchor in law the status of the KKL-JNF Jewish National Fund as the ‘national forester’ — a mandate given to it by the state in 1961.

That organization hit the headlines last week for planting in the Negev Desert, in a move that sparked days of riots by local Bedouin.

Bedouin protesters and Israeli forces clash during a protest in the southern Israeli village of Sawe al-Atrash in the Negev Desert against a forestation project by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), on January 13, 2022. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

But it also seeks to create a Council for Forests and Trees, along the lines of the plenum of the Nature and Parks Authority, the Water Authority Council, and other statutory bodies entrusted with the public’s natural resources.

This would set forestry policy by approving annual plans with budgets for the KKL to implement.

The council would include representation from the scientific community, relevant government ministries, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and the general public.

Its subcommittees would deal with a range of issues, from forest management, the impact of climate change, striking the right balance between public recreation and nature preservation, educating the public, and preventing forest fires, according to the proposed bill.

Illustrative: Firefighters try to extinguish a fire at moshav Givat Ye’arim outside Jerusalem on August 16, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Once a year, on Tu Bishvat, the KKL would submit to the council an annual report on its implementation of policy, with the council authorized to request further details. The report would be made public.

The bill would task the Agriculture Ministry with maintaining a database of all trees to be protected, and would impose strict regulations for tree felling, ensuring that where licenses are provided to cut trees down, replacements are planted elsewhere or monetary compensation is provided.

To make it easier for the public to object to the proposed felling of a tree, the bill suggests putting signs on or close to the trees in question and creating an easier mechanism for protesters to appeal.

It strengthens enforcement powers and insists that those found to have caused damage to a forest be made to face anything from six months to three years in jail and a court order to pay for repair and rehabilitation.

Exactly a year ago, a Knesset report revealed that between 2013 and 2018, some 40,000 licenses were granted by the Forest Commissioner — appointed by the Minister of Agriculture — to uproot 376,000 trees, more than half (204,000 trees, or 54.4 percent) for building development. Just 68,000 (15.3%) were to be replanted elsewhere.

a 200-year-old sycamore fig is uprooted to be planted elsewhere because of a building project in the southern coastal city of  Ashkelon, July 14, 2009. (Edi Israel/Flash90)

The Agriculture Ministry had issued tens of thousands of licenses in recent years to cut down 376,000 trees — more than half of them to make way for building projects. From 2016 to 2018, 477 cases of illegal tree cutting (of mature trees) were investigated and 140 fines — ranging from NIS 7,500 ($2,200) for one tree to NIS 29,200 ($8,500) for a group — were imposed. However, more than half of those fines were never paid.

In a section on the importance of urban tree planting for shade, in an era of rising temperatures, the bill adopts an Australian model by specifying that mayors set a target to put 40% of urban space under the shade of trees, and submit municipal plans to ensure that the targets are met within 15 years.

All authorities with more than 30,000 residents would start with a comprehensive survey of trees before drawing up multi-year planting plans.

A special fund would be set up under the law to help the local authorities, as well as to protect existing trees and help fund forest expansion. It would be funded by fees for chopping trees down, as well as by government cash and donations.

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