The JNF, Israel’s chief forestry body, intends to turn vast open Mediterranean landscapes into planted forests – this is a real threat to the future of some of the most important open spaces in the region
Zafrir Rinat | Jan. 14, 2019 | 4:09 AM | 3

The landscapes of the eastern Mediterranean are an ecological wonder. Although they have seen widespread human activity for thousands of years, they have survived and maintained their special character.

They developed ways of withstanding wildfires and regional climate change and adapted to grazing and agriculture. If they are not built on, they can survive as enclaves between cities. But in the future the landscapes of Israel will also have to deal with changes made by the Jewish National Fund.

According to a new report, the JNF, Israel’s chief forestry body, intends to turn vast open Mediterranean landscapes into planted forests. The report, by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, warns that this is a real threat to the future of some of the most important open spaces in the region.

The report, written by Alon Rothschild, director of biodiversity for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, deals with the future of some 600,000 dunams (about 148,260 acres) of natural open spaces earmarked for forestation on national master plans.

The report comes out ahead of the renewal of the covenant signed between the Jewish National Fund and the state regarding JNF activities. The Finance Ministry’s planning administration is also to decide soon on the future of these areas as it formulates a new national master plan.

The the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel wants to persuade the planning administration to keep these areas in their natural, unforested state.

The areas in question are found from the Golan Heights in the north to the northern Negev in the south. Some of the forests are planned by the Israel Lands Authority mainly to control the land, in other words, to prevent the spread of Bedouin construction. They consist of various kinds of special eastern Mediterranean landscapes which in Israel have hardly any protected status.

These open landscapes, called batha, are typically home to grassy species, shrubs and the rough, rocky calcareous limestone known as kurkar as well has red hamra soil. In the Negev, these open spaces consist of plains of loess soil mixed with clay and sand.

Endangered species

For thousands of years an ecosystem of plants and animals developed here where species were able to adapt to changing environmental conditions. They usually have very few or widely spaced trees. The batha areas are the richest habitat for various species of bees in the entire Mediterranean basin. Ground-nesting species of birds now prefer them, including endangered species like the spectacled warbler and the red-headed bunting.

Rocky areas provide shelter for many reptiles and are the main habitat for tortoises and a lizard called Günther’s cylindrical skink. The loess areas are home to a few species that can be found nowhere else in the world, including the Be’er Sheva fringe-fingered lizard. There are also two endangered species of garlic in those areas. In the kurkar and hamra zones are a great many plant species unique to Israel, some of which are endangered, such as the Jaffa toadflax and the purple iris.

According to the new SPNI report, preparations for tree planting will irreversibly damage natural ecosystems. And beyond the direct damage of changing the surface, is the total transformation of the land, which will be covered with trees instead of low grasses and shrubs. Various kinds of plants that depend on sufficient exposure to sunlight will find themselves overshadowed. Fertilizing and spraying during planting will worsen the damage. The living world will change fundamentally. New species of plants and animals will penetrate the new forests, pushing out and replacing local species. Raptors will not be able to find food in the thick covering of trees.

This damage has already happened where forests have been planted. In the batha areas around Ramat Hanadiv on Mount Carmel, jays have begun to raid nests of Sardinian warblers after planted pines gave them a better vantage point.

Mammals also have a hard time getting used to forests. A survey in the Lahav Forest in the Negev found have the number of mammals there as in the adjacent batha areas.

In the loess plains, the spider population has been replaced by more northern species. In the planted areas of loess, the Be’er Sheva fringed-fingered lizard can no longer be found, when its habitant was turned upside down.

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel report recommends that forests not be planted in areas of batha, loess and hamra.
“These are natural spaces in which there is no reason to plant,” Rothschild says. “They have to be given the chance to renew themselves naturally. At most, pruning and grazing can be allowed to moderate the vegetation.”

Open landscapes

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority is also concerned over the possibility of forestation of these areas, Two and a half months ago, the agency asked the chairman of the local zoning board to postpone its deliberations on the Jewish National Fund’s plan for foresting large areas of the Golan Heights.

“In the framework of the master plan for open spaces in the area, extensive tracts were marked for management by the JNF, but not to be forested,” the Israel Nature and Parks Authority wrote the committee.

“The plan states in no uncertain terms that no extensive forestation will be carried out that changes the grassy batha scenery, including areas of high ecological value,” they added.

The Society for the Protection of Nature has called for the Nature and Parks Authority to assume responsibility for these areas. The agency has inspection and enforcement powers that the Jewish National Fund lacks, SPNI argues, and is the body most capable of protecting these areas. According to the Society for the Protection of Nature, there must be a change of approach regarding all the forested areas in Israel, bringing these areas under a new law, which will decide which government ministry will be in charge of them.

JNF personnel can be responsible for ongoing implementation of forestry policy, but the policy itself should be decided by a government ministry, the Society for the Protection of Nature says. As for planting to maintain control of areas, the SPNI report recommends that this be authorized only after master plans have been submitted, as the law requires with regard to tree-planting everywhere else.

In a statement, the Jewish National Fund said: “We regret that instead of acting for the good of the state and the fostering of its green spaces, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel decided to fund a report commissioned by vested interested, which does not conform to the situation on the ground, including the recommendations, which speak only for the entity that commissioned the report.”

The JNF added that it was Israel’s “chief forester” and that it “takes actions to preserve forests and rehabilitate and foster ecosystems damaged by neglect and human agency, including illegal construction, illegal agriculture and discarding garbage in open areas.”

The organization said the planting would be “in accordance with regulations and approved by the Environmental Protection Ministry, which determines the extent of planting, the species of trees and their density.”

The JNF said it was “the most expert body in the area of forestation and the only organization that invests many resources in theoretical and practical research in this area,” and that “the professionalism of [its] personnel is renowned worldwide, and its foresters have assisted many countries to plant and foster sustainable forests, even in arid zones.

These actions have led the Israel Nature and Parks Authority to transfer authority to operate in tens of thousands of dunams of INPA land.”
Rothschild, however, notes that the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel report was based on a long series of studies and surveys and its recommendations stem not only from a scientific background. Unlike the JNF, Rothschild said, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority is under extensive public oversight.

“The goals of the Jewish National Fund are not defined in law and its board of directors does not include state representatives and environmental advocacy organizations. It also lacks tools for management and enforcement on the ground, such as closing off an area for rehabilitation and prohibiting harmful actions in nature. Planted forests, as a public product, must be managed by a government entity that works at the level of policy and enforcement, like the Nature and Parks Authority in the case of open and nonplanted spaces.”

The chance of a far-reaching change to the JNF’s standing is presumably small, but the SPNI hopes that the state will begin to use ecological considerations when it comes to the future of nature spaces that have not yet been planted with forest, and will allow them to retain their original Mediterranean identity.