Rehabilitation efforts already underway in KKL-JNF forests
After a series of fires blazed through the country’s forests over the past week, environmentalists are urging the government to let the earth heal itself naturally, rather than rushing to replant trees.

On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to both rebuild the homes lost in the fires and replant the forests burned. Yet experts from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel warned that replanting the trees could add insult to injury, causing irreversible damage to Israel’s already weakened ecosystem.

Alon Rothschild, SPNI’s biodiversity policy coordinator, stressed that the rehabilitation of forests must be based on the natural renewal capabilities of the affected region, relying on the natural seed bank found in the ground itself.

“Tree plantings should only be implemented after an ecological evaluation survey has proven their necessity, and only in small areas,” he said.

Meanwhile, Rothschild stressed that planting pine trees should be avoided at all costs, as these plants behave in an opportunistic manner, are incredibly flammable and can set the stage for another wildfire.

Rather than replanting trees, the government and KKL-JNF should be focusing on bolstering buffer zones, the space between human residences and the wooded areas, Rothschild added.

Ofri Gabay, an ecologist for SPNI, also stressed the importance of ridding the burnt forest areas of invasive species.

“After the fires there is an increase in the presence and the coverage of invasive species, so it’s very important for the people to manage the natural areas to monitor the state of invasive species and take care of them,” she said. “We don’t want to see these invasive species – we want them out, so they have to be treated.”

At KKL-JNF, where foresters have already started working to repair the devastation, activities are currently focusing on natural regrowth, and not on replanting.

“KKL-JNF has begun the process of rehabilitating the forests and open areas affected by the waves of fires, according to advanced forestry procedures that emphasize the process of natural forest regeneration,” a statement from the fund said.

“KKL-JNF anticipates a lengthy process of rehabilitation that in which the forests will eventually be naturally renewed, depending on land conditions.”

All in all, about 1,100 hectares of KKL-JNF forests were burned during last week’s fires, of which 750 hectares were in the Jerusalem hills region. Media reports estimated that some 4,100 hectares of land and trees were burned in total throughout Israel. However, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority said that its teams are still calculating the total damage in the nature reserve and park land under its jurisdiction.

In comparison, during the Carmel Forest fire of December 2010, about 300 hectares of KKL-JNF forests were burned, and a total of 3,500 dunams of both KKL-JNF and INPA areas.

During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, fires struck about 2,000 hectares of KKL-JNF lands. Data for INPA reserves and parks was not available for this period.

KKL-JNF’s rehabilitation plans for the damage caused by the latest string of fires are based on both scientific studies and experience gained from the previous incidents – in particular, the Carmel Forest fire, a statement from the fund said.

At the moment, foresters are assessing the damage, identifying dangers from burned materials and monitoring the surviving trees to protect them from pests, the statement explained. Full rehabilitation will be a long-term process, as the removal of burnt material alone can take up to four years.

Work in the immediate stage will focus on preserving the surviving trees, as these plants will shape the landscape in the areas under rehabilitation and ensure natural renewal, according to KKL-JNF. The fund is also considering taking measures to improve public accessibility to its forests and existing parking lots at its sites.

Only two to four years after the fire will foresters be able to decide whether planting is necessary and at what extent, the KKL-JNF statement said.

“This decision will be made depending on the situation created on the land – the survival of trees and their natural rejuvenation, and following the preparation of a long-term forest management plan,” the statement said. “KKL-JNF emphasizes that a fire is also an opportunity for renewal and the possibility of natural rehabilitation of terraces and ancient agricultural infrastructure.”