Sunday, February 14, 2021 12:00 PM
The story of Swiss Forest near Tiberias, from the man that knows: An interview with Uzi Eliyahu, forester and second-generation KKL-JNF staffer, who has tended this forest for decades.
Breathtaking views of the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) at Switzerland Forest. (Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive)
“When you look at these steep slopes, it’s hard to believe that we’ve managed to plant trees here,” says KKL-JNF forester Uzi Eliyahu
. This is how a protective green wall became an attraction for nature-lovers and tourists.
In the 120 years since its foundation, KKL-JNF has planted a great many woodlands all over Israel, comprising a total of over 250 million trees. But among them all, Switzerland Forest
stands out as something special, and not only because of its breathtaking views of the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), its wonderful greenery or the large numbers of visitors who enjoy spending time in it. Unlike most other Israeli woodlands, Switzerland Forest was not planted to beautify the area, attract nature-lovers or even to serve as a green lung: it was created as a barricade to protect the city of Tiberias from floods and landslides.
Planting began in the 1930s, in the wake of the terrible disaster that struck Tiberias in 1934, when torrents of water that swept down into the city from the slopes above it caused massive flooding, and lives were lost.
Uzi Eliyahu, director of KKL-JNF’s Tiberias Forests bloc. (Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive)
“The idea was to stabilize the slopes by planting them with trees whose roots would prevent soil erosion and flooding,” explains Uzi Eliyahu, director of KKL-JNF’s Tiberias Forests bloc, which extends over around 40 thousand dunam (approx. 10,000 acres) of woodland, of which Switzerland Forest forms a part.
As he walks the forest paths, Uzi Eliyahu thinks of his father: “Abba used to operate heavy engineering equipment for KKL-JNF,” he tells us. “He belonged to the generation that built this country, and he prepared land for agriculture and settlement. As a boy, I never dreamed that I would follow in his footsteps.”
After completing his military service, Eliyahu worked as a truck driver until his father’s manager suggested that he, too, join KKL-JNF as a heavy machinery operator. “I worked all over the country, from Eilat in the south to the northern Golan Heights. I helped to build communities, to prepare land for farming, to construct water reservoirs and to lay infrastructure,” he recalls.
As a young man, did you grasp the importance of the work you were doing?
“The truth is, I was busy working hard from morning to night and never stopped to reflect on things like that. It’s only today, when I see how agriculture is thriving and communities are flourishing, that I look back proudly and reflect that I, too, played a role in building every part of this country.”
After a number of years, Eliyahu transferred to KKL-JNF’s afforestation division, where, ever since, he has been busy planting trees and making Israel green. Among other things, he is responsible for the forests of Lavi, Tur‘an, Masad, Ein Dor, and Menahemiya and, of course, for Switzerland Forest, too. Today he is sixty-three years old, married, the father of three children and lives in Moshav Kfar Zeitim in Lower Galilee.
“When you look at the precipitous slopes of Switzerland Forest, it’s hard to believe that we managed to plant trees there,” he says. “Water can’t soak into the ground here because of the steep incline and the meager rainfall, and the area is prone to forest fires, some of which are the result of arson. Nonetheless, the forest renews itself and stays green and beautiful.”
View of Tiberias from Switzerland Forest. (Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive)
How do you achieve that?
“With a great deal of hard work, devotion and personal care for every tree. This was a high-maintenance forest both at the beginning and afterwards, too, until the trees were firmly established. Each sapling we plant is surrounded by netting and three iron posts, to protect it from the herds of cattle that graze in the area. In most other woodlands we rid the planting areas of weeds, but here we leave them be, because they help prevent soil erosion. We irrigate the saplings for the first three years after planting, then gradually reduce the quantity of water they get, until the fourth year, when they can begin to fend for themselves.”
Are you still planting trees here today?
“Yes, of course. Right now, we’re preparing an area of 80 dunam for renewal. This is an area of forest that was burned two years ago, and, as the woodland has not managed to regenerate naturally, we’ve decided to help it revive by planting saplings.”
What type of trees are you planting?
Today we believe in planting large numbers of native Israeli trees. For example, we’re planting Mount Atlas mastic trees, Jerusalem thorn (Ziziphus spina-christi) and carob. We learned the hard way to do this. In the past we planted pines, but they didn’t survive because of the harsh local conditions and we realized that they weren’t suitable for this habitat. Years ago, Western Australian golden wattle (Acacia saligna) was planted here, and that was a mistake we’re still paying for today. It’s an aggressive invasive species, and we have to fight the whole time to keep it from spreading and to ensure that local varieties survive.”
The temporary Donor Recognition Center at Switzerland Forest. (Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive)
Laughter returns to the woodland
Switzerland Forest is notable not only for its trees and luxuriant undergrowth, but also for the variety of creatures it hosts, including wild boar, deer, jackals, foxes, a variety of raptors, and other birds – not to mention human beings, who visit every year in their hundreds of thousands.
“Visitors come to enjoy the beautiful Kinneret views and the natural green surroundings,” explains Eliyahu. “It’s not quite the scenery of Switzerland, but it’s the nearest thing we have. You won’t see views like these anywhere else in Israel. Families, youth groups and hikers on the Israel Trail, which passes through the forest, come here from all over the country. The ministry of education has adopted Switzerland Forest as a major school excursion destination in northern Israel. And at weekends crowds of people arrive for picnics.”
What’s happening here now, during COVID-19?
“During lockdowns, when no one can go far from home, I encounter mainly local people who are out exercising. That’s another advantage of the forest: it encourages people to get out and walk, run and cycle in natural surroundings. Then, as soon as COVID restrictions are lifted, the forest fills up with visitors again and echoes with the sound of laughter and people enjoying themselves.”
Bike trails and single-track route for cyclists through magnificent scenery at Switzerland Forest. (Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive)
KKL-JNF has created scenic routes, cycle trails, recreation areas and observation points throughout the forest for the benefit of visitors. Eliyahu explains: “The six-kilometer paved scenic route that crosses the woodland was upgraded recently. Then there’s a five-kilometer bike trail, and also a challenging thirteen-kilometer single-track route for cyclists through magnificent scenery with views of the Kinneret and the Golan Heights. The forest contains a number of recreation areas with picnic facilities that we want to develop further. There’s the Kestenbaum recreation area, the Guttman recreation area, lookout points, the Carl Lutz three-tier recreation area, a two-level lookout point, and the big observation area where there are plans to build a new appreciation center for our Friends in Switzerland.”
KKL-JNF had previously established an appreciation center at the observation point overlooking the Kinneret. With time, however, the site was damaged by land slippage and today the area is closed to visitors. The appreciation center has been moved temporarily to nearby Lavi Forest. KKL-JNF is now promoting a plan to restore the original appreciation center site and establish a permanent center there that will include an impressive observation point in a shaded structure. Work is due to start in the coming months.
Carl Lutz Scenic Lookout at Switzerland Forest. (Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive)
As the person responsible for the forest, do you have any special connection to KKL-JNF’s Friends in Switzerland?
“Without the Swiss, this spot would be deserted and neglected. We all thank them from the bottom of our hearts, because it is due to them that this miracle has been made possible. The visitors who flock to the forest know very well whom they have to thank for their enjoyment of the site.”
Have you had any interesting encounters with Swiss people here in the forest?
“I’ve taken part in a lot of ceremonies over the years and I’ve met a lot of groups from Switzerland and all over the world. I particularly remember one woman whose name was Helga Gerhardt, a tour guide from Switzerland who used to bring her groups here to visit. Her profound love for the place was obvious, and her eyes would sparkle every time she came to Switzerland Forest. Today we have a bench here in the forest that’s named after her.”
Eliyahu told us that he sometimes comes to visit the forest with his family outside work hours, on weekends and holidays. “I can’t restrain myself, and I boast to my children about everything we’ve achieved here. They laugh and say, ‘Yes, Abba, we know, everything here was all done by you.’ I don’t mind that they laugh at me. I’m very proud of what we’ve managed to create here together, and there’s no better feeling than showing it off to my children.”