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Frequently the ideological fervor of the JNF left it deaf to environmental critiques, even when they were substantiated professionally. Novelist Meir Shalev relates a story from the 1950s when the JNF drained the Huleh swamp. A Dutch reclamation expert who was hired as a consultant warned that the peat in the ground could undermine the project. “Then the JNF hydrologist stood up, hit the table with his fist and declared, ‘Our peat is Zionist peat. Our peat will not do damage.’ As is known, the Dutch have much experience in the reclamation of land. But even they had not yet met land with a political conscience.”[145]

Perhaps in spite of its critics, however, the JNF perspective eventually began to change. It was not philosophy, but biological realism, that led to the shift away from planting Jerusalem pines. Quite simply, the insatiable M. josephi blasts thrived, and trees succumbed in an uncontrollable epi-demic. It became particularly dramatic when it snowed and weakened branches collapsed. Extensive damage to the Sha'ar ha-Gai forest on the

Jerusalem highway in the winter of 1972 was the most identifiable turn-ing point, but the process had begun much earlier. The press clamored for a simple explanation, and of course there was none.

“I had to call a press conference because it became a politically sensitive issue,” recalls JNF forester Chaim Blass. “The damaged trees were on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highways. Government ministers passed by them on their way to work and were bound to be confused by the reports. The Jerusalem Post threw up a headline: ‘The Sha'ar ha-Gai Forest Is Dying,’ but I explained that this is just a stage. There is undergrowth. And if you go see the forest, it really is still very much alive.”[146]

But press conferences could not save the trees. The crisis, which coin-cided with Yosef Weitz's death, brought with it the end of an era. A 1984 internal report described 20 percent of JNF pine plantations sustaining damage nationwide, with extensive mortality and damage among mature trees. At the same time, natural stands were largely uninfested.[147] By the end of the 1990s M. josephi spread to the forests in the previously unin-fected southern region, causing heavy damage.[148] The Forestry Department finally got the message.

During the 1970s, praise for Jerusalem pine trees in official JNF publica-tions became more muted. Wood that Weitz had once called “the best of the pines that can be used for furniture and building materials” was now re-ferred to as “inferior in quality when compared with other commercial tim-ber pines, but its high resistance to drought led to its past popularity.”[149] By 1973, the brutia pine was elevated as an equal to the Jerusalem pine in offi-cial JNF publications and called “best suited” for the country's hills.[150] In 1987, conifers (pines and cypress) still made up 65 percent of all forest trees in Israel, but Jerusalem pines were only 11 percent. (Eucalyptus were 8.5 percent and oaks 7.5 percent.) Today conifers cover less than half of newly planted lands.[151] During the same period, tree density also dropped dramat-ically, from roughly 300 per dunam to 120 to 150. With no reduction in the area of annual forest expansion, in the 1980s the JNF was planting three mil-lion saplings per year, as opposed to six million during the 1960s.[152]

Native trees suddenly made more sense to foresters. Evolution had granted them the requisite natural protection for local conditions. Trees that survive in arid climates generally are protected from grazing animals by a coat of thorns. For example, the local oak, Quercus calliprinos, only reaches a quarter of the size of European or North American species, but its tiny acorns have small thorns on the edges of their thick waxy leaves. Although the tree grows very slowly, its roots can penetrate hard limestone and dolomite. Today it is just one of the forty types of trees that the JNF mixes.


The new biodiversity can be seen as part of a natural, organizational, and botanical progression. Now in his 80s, Chaim Blass still represents the unrepentant first generation of Israeli pine foresters:

The pines were the pioneers—it was the first stage, and that's how we saw it. At the time, beginning in the thirties, we had to be efficient. Bringing in a more diverse combination of local species is a logical next step. Today foresters come up to me and tell me, “Thanks to you, we have work,” because there is little new land left that can be converted to forests. We had to grab as much as we could and create facts.

Dr. Yerahmiel Kaplan, one of the first formally trained forestry experts to join the JNF in 1945, is equally unapologetic:

If I were religious I would thank G-d for the Jerusalem pine. It was the only appropriate tree at the time. It may be aggressive, sending roots in all directions and dominating other species. But this is what allows it to compete for water. The truth is that pine and eucalyptus were the only JNF trees to survive World War I. It was a clear sign of what would last in Israel.[153]

The younger generation of foresters basically concur with this perspec-tive, citing the increased preservation value that planning commissions as-sign to JNF forests, regardless of their ecological merits.[154] In the debate over legitimate reclamation versus conservation, environmentalists may also tend to overstate their case or attack a JNF that no longer exists.

Policy analyst Danny Orenstein represents the new generation of edu-cators who have spent time working at the JNF. He has stronger Green cre-dentials than most environmentalist critics, holding a master's degree in desert ecology from Ben-Gurion University. “The ecological critique needs to remember the challenges that JNF faced at the different stages and avoid the ‘Monday morning quarterback’ phenomenon,” he explains. “For exam-ple, with the creation of the State there was a political side to forestry, which required tree planting to delineate the borders. JNF was playing with a completely different set of priorities and directives back then.”[155]

Pine forests may not be as desolate as Green rhetoric suggests. At the very least they produce the popular pine mushrooms. After rains subside, Israelis flock to these woods to pick the Suillus granitulus for their soups and omelets. Wildlife was never really a JNF priority, and there have been many raging arguments over the years with nature lovers who saw the woods as habitat rather than as timber production centers. The JNF in-variably countered that ecologists had a tendency to exaggerate and over-state their case.


Indeed, pine forests probably do not provide a rich microhabitat for the variety of plants, insects, birds, and small mammals that are found in na-tive brushlands. Yet even in a prototypic pine desert such as the Negev's Lahav Forest, JNF workers report rich populations of hyenas, wildcats, foxes, porcupines, and snakes that have managed to adapt. These animals may feed off the garbage of nearby kibbutzim and Bedouin settlements, retreating to the safety of the forest to sleep.[156] Unnatural perhaps, and certainly a nuisance to farmers—but Israel is filled with examples of wildlife successfully adapting to changes imposed by man.

New global considerations may ultimately provide the most compelling reason to alter the traditional suspicion that environmentalists have of conifers. Israeli ecologists have not yet internalized the meaning of the greenhouse effect and the potential value of increasing carbon storage. Humanity may no longer enjoy the luxury of taking an across-the-board hands-off approach to open spaces. If, for example, the aggressive anti-desertification tactics of the JNF were adopted in arid regions around the planet, it might, beyond food and fiber benefits, contribute to stabilized global carbon dioxide levels.[157]

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