October 04, 2013 12:13 AM
By Kareem Shaheen

BEIRUT: The most comprehensive map yet of Lebanon’s forests was unveiled Thursday in a major step in efforts to track the health of the country’s tree populations and combat forest fires.

The map, part of a new online portal, identifies sites where trees ought to be replanted and the species that would best fit the area; regions in the country that are at risk of wildfires; and a comprehensive chart of forests and vegetation.

Scientists plan on adding features that predict the impact of climate change on Lebanon’s forests, includings a heightened risk of forest fires and trees migrating to higher altitudes, fleeing warmer weather.

The project was developed by the Lebanon Reforestation Initiative, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The four-year program will cost $11.9 million and aims to help Lebanon manage and expand its forests and tree populations.

The project’s creators work with local municipalities and communities to plant trees native to Lebanon, including cedars, pines, junipers and oaks. About half a million trees will have been planted by the beginning of autumn next year.

The online mapping tools track the health of the seedlings planted by the communities, detailing on the map which ones have failed or survived, using detectors near the trees.

The project collates the work of local institutions and scientists who studied the country’s forests and vegetation and mapped them.

It also includes details of the climate and ecology of the different forest areas, such as how much rainfall they receive and characteristics of the soil.

Richard Paton, LRI’s project director, said tracking efforts had already dramatically improved the success rate of seedlings planted by the project, compared to previous efforts.

In past projects “the seedlings [were] planted and everybody comes out and there’s a photo opportunity and everybody feels good about it, and then a year later they’re all dead,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been trying to change.”

Lebanon’s rich forests are in danger of being subsumed by unplanned, industrial development. Trees like the juniper, for instance, long features of Lebanon’s mountainous regions, are under threat from unregulated grazing and human encroachment.

So far, replanting efforts have been haphazard. The new database will help local authorities identify which trees are suitable for their climate, for instance, and which areas need to be reforested.

But Paton said the tree preservation projects are also valuable because the forest is part of Lebanon’s cultural heritage, distinguishing it from the rest of the region.

“It’s the workers from their communities that are planting the trees,” he said. “They want to see these succeed.”

“There is a pride here in how this country historically has been different in that sense, that it’s a real endowment that is jeopardized,” he added.

Paton and his team are also planning on adding tools that will model the impact of climate change on Lebanon’s forests. They are beginning to get preliminary results from models aimed at predicting what could happen in the next 20, 50 and 80 years.

One likely scenario is that trees begin migrating to higher altitudes in Lebanon’s mountains to escape the heat. Burn seasons are also likely to last longer, and areas susceptible to forest fires could also become drier, increasing the risk of a conflagration.

For more information, go to lri-lb.org/#mapping.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 04, 2013, on page 4.

Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2013/Oct-04/233489-online-portal-tracks-trees-in-reforestation-effort.ashx#ixzz2ghuRM9SJ
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News :: http://www.dailystar.com.lb)