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The Forest's Many Shades of Green
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In many areas environmentalists and JNF foresters have reached some un-derstanding. At the same time, a clash of perceptions, objectives, and val-ues continues to generate tensions and animosity. At the end of the day, the JNF remains a development agency whose raison d'être requires that it intervene in nature. While the degree of gentleness and sensitivity may vary, improving the environment is philosophically no different from re-deeming the land. For example, the JNF is still in the road-construction business. This began as part of its contribution to the 1948 war effort, en-suring supply lines to the many besieged communities on JNF lands. Once their asphalt capabilities were recognized, however, JNF bulldozers were increasingly pressed into such service. Between 1948 and 1964 the JNF paved 1500 kilometers of roads, primarily to connect new and existing settle-ments.[173] By the 1990s, it passed the 6000-kilometer mark.[174]

Today drivers entering the newly expanded Mitzpeh Ramon highway at the Zichor junction are jolted by a bright green billboard proclaiming the central role of the JNF in the project. Ecologists might wonder why the JNF would want to boast about a road that cuts through one of the coun-try's largest nature reserves. If the JNF really wants to stake its claim as an environmental agency, why is it not laying railroad tracks?

By the end of the century, the JNF Mechanical Equipment Division still had a budget of over fifty-five million shekels a year.[175] Its fleet of over a hundred pieces of heavy earth-moving equipment is replaced at a rate of roughly fifteen pieces per year.[176] In the same way that pacifists fear ar-mament buildups, environmentalists know that the machinery is not there to collect dust.

Dr. Benny Shalmon has been on the cutting edge of conservation activ-ity in Israel for almost thirty years and is among the most senior public-interest scientists in Israel. His moderate stance reflects a consensus among environmentalists: “I feel that the JNF has changed. They are much more sensitive, having learned that monocultures don't work—from the point of view of forestry, even disregarding ecology. They have moved be-yond the conifers. The problem remains, however, that they have a lot of money and a lot of machinery. When they have an idea, they don't try it

out gingerly and consider it after extensive experimentation. They work on a large scale and still lack the patience to really learn. For example, they still want to transform the Negev desert into a forest.”[177]

Indeed, the appropriate approach toward Israel's deserts remains a heated area of controversy. Afforestation efforts in the desert regions began during the 1950s, a relatively wet period; yet years of low rainfall during the early 1960s led to less impressive results. JNF efforts moved north, to semiarid areas, where rainfall exceeded two hundred millime-ters.[178] The resulting pine forests at Yatir and Lahav are among Israel's largest and are unprecedented for such a parched region. At the same time, “making the desert green” remained a Zionist axiom, and JNF research steadily progressed, exploring ways to grow trees in more arid zones. The JNF first began applied research on saline, arid soils in 1939 at Kibbutz Beit ha-Arava, north of the Dead Sea. During the 1980s, researchers associated with Ben-Gurion University's Sde Boqer campus began to develop the in-novative techniques that today support JNF flagship antidesertification initiatives.

“Savannization” has become an important buzzword since 1986, when the JNF began planting and water harvesting on three experimen-tal arid sites. Some thirty species of salt-resistant and water-efficient trees are scattered on water-enriched patches in the otherwise barren and crusted terrain. The landscaping reduces soil erosion and gullies, while deep infiltration of water into subsoils is enhanced by dividing the basin into runoff-collecting areas that are irrigated by a redirected flow from contributing lands.[179] The result looks nothing like a forest but is closer to an African savanna, with only ten trees per dunam. A remarkable assortment of 130 additional plant species and grasses takes advantage of the improved conditions in collecting areas to support seasonal grazing. The resulting positive feedback loop continues, as foraging animals, attracted to the shrubs, leave excrement that enhances the soil's organic content.[180]

Beyond savannization the other JNF innovation, limans (from the Greek for “pond of standing water”), involve smaller, isolated man-made oases. Research began in 1962 when rain was channeled into microcatch-ment basins between one and six dunams in size. Eucalyptus, acacia, tamarisk, and pine have all been successfully planted in these pool-like depressions. Even in areas south of Beer Sheva, having less than one hun-dred millimeters of rainfall, the trees at these sites survive the summer months based entirely on runoff from the surrounding watershed during the sporadic winter rainfalls. Limans have been planted by the hundreds,

breaking up the desert landscape and serving as rest areas for motorists, army units in the field, and herds.[181]

The JNF promotes these projects as part of a larger development initia-tive called “Action Plan Negev.” This plan is designed to provide employ-ment and to improve the standard of living in Israel's last “frontier” region. Billions of shekels are ultimately to be invested in hothouse agriculture, fish ponds, orchards, olive plantations, and associated infrastructures. The afforestation that is to accompany the entire endeavor is suitably ambi-tious: the JNF talks about planting one million dunams.

Not every one sees this vision as a blessing: Making more water avail-able can destroy the competitive advantage of arid-zone species in their in-teractions with species less adapted to the desert. The expansion of flora also contributes to a new distribution of animals in the region, with win-ners and losers. Among the winners are crested larks, chukars, and red foxes, whose ranges have expanded dramatically with the new plantings. Other populations, such as sand partridges, brown-necked ravens, and foxes besides the red fox, may suffer from the new competition.[182]

While the new savannas, such as the Sayeret Shaked Park, are fascinat-ing as an ecological experiment, many find the resulting sparse landscape uninspiring or even unattractive. In fact, it has been argued that excessive afforestation may detract from the Negev's appeal as a tourist site.[183] Ecologist Noam Gressel argues that despite the increase in tree cover, the desert-adapted species provide little shade, and their low density offers lit-tle in terms of cooling for recreational purposes. It is even conceivable that, in the long term, the diversion of water may have a negative effect.

The savannas are designed to be a more sustainable model of afforesta-tion, but are they? Part of the criticism of the conventional pine forests involves the inability of JNF pine saplings to survive outside of a nursery in semiarid zones. Many trees in the savannas are also incapable of natu-rally regenerating. While biodiversity is much greater on managed lands, there is nothing indigenous about many of the trees. The exotic eucalyptus are planted in savannas more than any other tree type: this implies that perpetual, intensive management will have to accompany these sites if they are to endure as botanical attractions. These issues all come back to a complex ethical question: Is the goal of these projects preservation of eco-logical process or content?

A related ideological and ecological debate that will not go away re-volves around the legitimacy of JNF efforts to improve native woodlands, or so-called natural forests. These constitute roughly a quarter of the lands

in Israel designated as forests, including some of the most interesting and highest-quality stands. Originally the issue focused on the 440,000 dunams declared by the British as forest reserves, but with the JNF's cen-tral role in overseeing National Master Plan 22, the zone of contention has widened.

For instance, the most characteristic of Israel's indigenous trees in these woodlands is the Mediterranean oak. It can reach considerable heights and offers extensive shade year-round when it grows unencumbered. Yet when-ever it is cut or burned, it coppices, growing a great number of new branches, none of which becomes a new trunk. Each branch produces a few twigs and leaves on its upper part. Together they create an extremely thick bush, through which little sunlight can penetrate. Not only can grasses not grow below, but the tree forms a thicket that becomes impenetrable for grazing.[184] To what extent should the JNF be involved in improving such natural stands? The JNF afforestation policy has not changed in thirty years. Standard procedure involves a three-step, seven-year process for “improving” such environments by pruning low in the tree, transforming the natural landscape.[185]

Because the work in these stands is especially labor intensive, JNF progress is slow. In 1996, the JNF thinned three thousand dunams and constructed eight kilometers of forest roads on these lands. Environmental activists claim that the JNF still brings its herbicides and conifer bias to the task.[186] The real issue is aesthetic and philosophical, however. Under JNF policy, eventually all native bushes will be crafted into an improved, accessible form. Forests will end up more like gardens than wilderness—lovely to some people, inappropriate in the opinion of others. Although satisfaction levels of Israelis visiting JNF forests is extremely high, it is largely a social or recreational experience, much as urban dwellers enjoy their local parks: as pleasant places.[187] For more profound natural experiences, they prefer the authenticity of the south-ern desert wilderness.[188] Its new ecological sensitivities notwithstand-ing, today's JNF remains confident that it is on the right track with such policies.

“There is very little that is natural in Israel,” explains forester Menahem Sachs. “There has been civilization here for the past ten thou-sand years. Man determined what is left. We burned the flora. We created the landscape. … As of 1995 there were only three hundred square meters of open space for every person in Israel. By international standards, this is nothing. In these circumstances, I believe that you have to manage the

lands. If I work intelligently, I will make relatively few mistakes. But you can't take man out of the ecosystem. The lands will only deteriorate.”[189]

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The Forest's Many Shades of Green
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