Just a day before Israelis celebrate the Tu B’Shvat holiday by planting trees, and only nine days after KKL JNF Jewish National Fund launched a campaign to plant 100,000 new trees in the country, a Knesset report revealed Sunday that the Agriculture Ministry has 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.
The data was compiled by the Knesset Research and Information Unit at the request of lawmaker Miki Haimovich, head of the Blue and White party’s ‘Green HQ.’
The report paints a picture of poor data gathering and insufficient inspection and enforcement, as well as an opaque approach to publicizing tree cutting permits which makes it hard for concerned citizens to appeal.
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, the report showed. Of these, more than half (204,000 trees, or 54.4 percent) were removed for building development. Just 68,000 (15.3%) were to be replanted elsewhere.
In fact, the report said, efforts to replant elsewhere have declined over the years because of the expense of doing so.
The cost of replanting varies from NIS 1,500 ($440) for an olive tree which has an 85% chance of survival to NIS 500,000 ($145,000) for large trees that have a 60% chance of surviving in a new location.
More than half of fines never paid
It is illegal to cut down a mature tree without a license. Doing so can result in a prison sentence of up to six months or a fine.
Young trees other than olive and carob trees are not protected — and an order defining certain other species as protected ran out in 2017 and has not been renewed, despite the recommendations of an Agriculture Ministry advisory committee, the report found.
Furthermore, the law does not punish anyone who harms trees, for example by pruning them badly or damaging them in the course of building works. The only punishment is if trees are killed, in which case they fall under the category of illegal logging.
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.
People granted licenses to cut down trees are supposed either to plant a similar tree elsewhere or pay the equivalent for someone else to do so, the report said. But the Agriculture Ministry office in charge of protecting trees was unable to supply details about what takes place in practice, citing “technological limitations” and a lack of inspectors.
For the same reason, the office could not say what the outcome had been of 445 appeals lodged between 2016-2018 to try to reverse decisions to remove trees.
The report noted that the Forest Commissioner’s office has an old computer system which makes managing information difficult and has asked for an upgrade but has not yet received the NIS 350,000 ($102,000) in funds to do so.
“Trees are an inseparable part of the environment, which affects everyone,” Haimovitch said.
Israel clearly had to undergo development, she noted, “but not with destruction that fails to take future generations into account.”
Despite global warming, nature protection came at the bottom of the list of priorities in the current rush to build more homes and infrastructure throughout the country, she charged.
“For our health and the environment, considerations of nature and sustainability must be at the center of the public agenda, as they affect us all.”
Tree protection ‘getting weaker’
Commenting on the report, Tali Granot, responsible for health and environment at the environmental organization Adam Teva V’Din, told Israel Radio that while the world understands the importance of trees for fighting climate change, tree protection in Israel has weakened over the years, especially in public spaces in cities. She told the Times of Israel that this formed part of ongoing government moves to cut regulations across all ministries.
In contrast to building plans, which were posted on buildings for the public to see and object to, the only way to identify plans to cut down trees was by actively followed notices on the Agriculture Ministry’s website, she said, and even then the time period for appeals was short. Most people only learned that a tree was to be removed once it had disappeared, Granot said.
Furthermore, she complained that fines were too low and there were not enough inspectors. And while the Forest Commissioner could still veto a plan to remove trees at a fairly late stage of the planning process, the ministry was taking steps to weaken this power. The office needed more powers, not less, she asserted. “Protecting trees is protecting all of us.”
In a statement, the Agriculture Ministry rejected claims that fines were not sufficiently high to serve as a deterrent and said it was currently working to improve the computerized system so as to serve the pubic more efficiently.
Tu B’Shvat (literally the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shvat) has become known as a tree planting festival in Israel. In biblical times, it marked the end of the “tax” year for taking tithes on fruit and the beginning of the next.