Rehabilitating Forests of Northern Israel

During the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, extensive damage was caused to thousands of acres of KKL-JNF forests across northern Israel. These forests are an important ecological resource and a vital component of the quality of life of the one-third of Israelis who live in the region, and of the tourism industry that is a lynchpin of the region’s economy.

 

Post-war blossom. Photo: Yulia Ulshenski, KKL-JNF Jerusalem.

As the war raged and missiles fell, KKL-JNF workers were at the forefront of the battle to save the forest, fighting fires and attempting to limit the damage they caused. After the war, with the help of friends and supporters around the world, KKL-JNF led the rehabilitation process.
 
KKL-JNF presented a holistic recovery program for the forests. Mindful of the phrase “can’t see the forest for the trees,” this program saw both the forest and the trees: both the need to care for each injured tree and each damaged section of forest, and the need to address broader infrastructure issues raised by the crisis. Accordingly, the program included three complementary components:
 

1. Green Again – forest rehabilitation in Northern Israel.

 

2. Safety First – personal safety equipment for KKL-JNF firefighters.

 

3. The Human Dimension – training and equipment for KKL-JNF forest workers.

 

All three components of the program meet vital needs following the war and the damage it brought to the forests of the north. KKL-JNF is playing the lead role in the effort to rehabilitate the region's forests, in order to maintain this precious natural resource and strengthen the economic, cultural, and social fabric of the Galilee as it recovers from the trauma of the missile barrage.

War Damages


The heaviest damage was inflicted during the first 29 days of the war. More than 5 billion Shekels’ worth of direct and indirect damage was inflicted, including damage to thousands of buildings, hundreds of cars, hundreds of businesses and to public property. Agriculture and tourism also suffered extensive damage.

 

Israeli-Lebanese fighting during July-August 2006 was accompanied with continuous rocket attacks over the Galilee. These caused much loss of life and created serious damage in terms of property and fires in KKL-JNF forests. The fires in turn, destroyed hundreds of acres of forestry in the Galilee, caused serious ecological damage, scarred the landscape, and damaging tourism in the region.

 

The cost of repairing the direct damage to the forests is estimated at approximately 80 million Shekels. This sum includes preparing new seedlings, caring for the trees, preparing the ground for replanting, equipment, upkeep of fire-fighting equipment and hundreds of tons of fire-prevention material. In addition, tens of millions of Shekels are needed to renovate damaged security roads and paths, campgrounds, parks, and lookout points. 

 

Klil Adar of Western Galilee described the firefighters’ work: “KKL-JNF teams are working constantly under the threat of Katyusha fire. When the scouts in the lookout towers locate where the missiles have fallen, the firefighting trucks and their teams rush to the site to deal with the fires that have broken out. Very often they arrive only moments after the missile has landed, while other rockets are still falling around them and most of the civilian population is under cover in protected structures. At real danger to their own lives the workers, protected by helmets and shrapnel-proof vests, deploy their hoses and attack the fire in conditions of great physical and emotional discomfort, often with heavy spraying equipment on their backs. They do this day in, day out, night after night. What motivates us is our desire to reach the blaze while it is still small and controllable.”

 

Forestry Fires

 

KKL-JNF teams in the north battled against the large number of fires caused daily by the dozens of Katyushas which fall in the region. These fires spread simultaneously from a number of different focal points, and firefighting efforts were conducted jointly with KKL-JNF teams from the central and southern regions and using the KKL-JNF's eight fire trucks found in the northern region and operated with the help of two command centers opened as the war began. The ground teams and the fire trucks are joined in daylight hours by an airborne patrol. KKL-JNF teams have four fire-fighting planes at their disposal, provided by the Aerial Fire-Fighting Fund, which was jointly founded by KKL-JNF, the Ministry of Interior, the Israel Lands Authority and the Ministry of Defense.

 

“More than a quarter of the forests and natural woodland in the North went up in flames during the war. 12 thousand out of 45 thousand dunam were burned,” said Ofir Gamliel, forester for the Upper Galilee and Golan Heights region, Approximately 3 thousand out of 11.5 thousand acres of planted forests and natural woodland containing over 750,000 trees of various types as well as 50,000 dunams of pastureland, were damaged during the fighting in the north. Most of the damage to the forests was in the Naftali mountain range, where 7,500 dunams, constituting three-quarters of the total forested area, were burned; and in the Biria and Beit Keshet forests where more than 2,000 dunams were burned. Apart from these, KKL-JNF teams have been battling to contain fires in Meron, Hanita Forest and Baram Forest. About 2,000 dunams of the 20,000-dunam Naboria Forest were also destroyed. Simultaneously with the Lebanon War, Israel's southern region continued to be targeted by Qassam missiles with fire breaking out in hundreds of dunams.

 

Particularly extensive damage was done to KKL-JNF forests and agricultural areas, estimated at more than 500 million Shekels. Biria Forest, the second largest forest in Israel, has been hit by dozens of Katyushas. The fire in Beit Keshet was started by a single Katyusha hit igniting a fire. Agricultural areas which have been burned will not be able to be replanted with fruits and vegetables for many years to come. Rehabilitation of the forests will take from 15 - 60 years according to the age of the damaged forest.

 

Underground Fires

 

In the midst of attacks, director of the KKL-JNF northen region Dr. Omri Boneh stated that “several Katyusha rockets that landed in the Huleh Lake during the war caused underground fires to break out in the marsh gas of the peat bogs". These were extinguished by continuously flooding the area

 

Threats on Wildlife

 

The forest provides a habitat for a variety of wild animals: gazelles, rodents, reptiles, birds and a huge variety of insects. Many young animals do not manage to escape and are killed in the fire. Those which survive have to try to find new areas to live in.

 

A herd of buffalo was present in the damaged area of the Huleah Lake, but KKL-JNF representatives succeeded in moving them to a small island in the lake without their being injured. The rehabilitation procedures including flooding were being treated in consideration with the return of carnes to the area.

 

The  scope of the damage to small mammals, reptiles, turtles remained unknown for a period. As winter rains came, head of the Upper Galilee and Golan Heights regions for the KKL-JNF Aviram Zuk spoke of the evident damages to the orange salamanders, a protected species considered to be in danger of extinction in the region. Ironically known as "fire queens" because of their bright orange spots, when their mating season began KKL-JNF staff witnessed their usual numbers dwindeled significantly. "A fire in a place like Naboria River spreads at an amazing speed above the wadi. The heat is tremendous and the salamanders and other small animals had no chance of being saved from it", said Zuk.

 

Following the war, further outcomes were evident. The damage to pasture has destroyed the cattle’s food source and the burned areas will not be avialble for grazing for at least seven years, when the trees will have grown large enough to survive the presence of cattle. Feasibility calculations for cattle-rearing are based on the assumption that grazing land will provide a free source of food, and herd owners were now being forced to buy fodder, which is extremely expensive.

 

Cattle fences damaged by fire or by the activities of rescue workers have to be repaired or replaced. If this is not done quickly, cattle may stray into newly-planted areas and damage the young trees. Compensation has to be paid to herd owners who suffered losses as a result of the war, such as the death of cattle from smoke inhalation or lack of veterinary treatment.

KKL-JNF Operations

 

“And all the trees of Eden were comforted” (Ezekiel 31:17)

 

Rehabilitation time for the northern region forests was estimated at several years and even decades. KKL-JNF however operated in many aspects, and an emergency center was set up at Mahanayim Junction, opposite Biria Forest while fires were still ablaze. Other projects and operations were also started, encompassing various aspects of activity in rehabilitation and development.
 
Whilst it is true that in tranquile times there is no immediate threat to the forests, foresters have many daily tasks to perform: planting, pruning, garbage removal, maintenance of trails, pastures and parking lots, in addition to dealing with cases of illegal logging, vandalism, arson and the depredations of stray cattle. After all, woods have to be protected even when no missiles are falling.

 

Under fire

 

Throughout the war period KKL-JNF fire fighters - 12 ground teams, 9 fire trucks and 100 workers and volunteering staff countrywide - have dealt with 600 forest fires. During the day, planes belonging to Chem-Nir Company aided them.  “From the beginning of the war until now we have used more fire fighting materials in helicopters than in the past two years together. During this period we have dealt with more fires than the entire number of fires in the past five years,” explained Dr. Omri Boneh, Head of the northern division.

 
The lookout towers located at strategic points in forested areas play a major role in fire prevention in both war and peacetime. During the summer the towers are staffed from morning until evening by professional observers familiar with the area. When an observer sees a smoke source he immediately reports it to both the control room and to the workers in the field.
 
Alongside firefighting efforts in the forests, KKL-JNF had paved with help of Friends of KKL-JNF worldwide security roads in the northern region providing comparatively safe access for both military and civilian vehicles.
 
These works also served for further regional development, as Arye Guido the director of infrastructure at Kibbutz Misgav Am said: "KKL-JNF’s contribution to the kibbutz has served as the basis for overall infrastructure development. Apart from the security road, which is a real life-saver, KKL-JNF has provided the infrastructure for the chicken houses – both new and old – access roads, the amphitheater and the infrastructure for the tourism village. KKL-JNF is part of our everyday lives, and it is in evidence everywhere. Even during the war, when my son was in Lebanon, I used to go up to the lookout tower every day and watch him through binoculars, just as if he were at home, when, in actuality, he was in a Lebanese village just below the kibbutz. It felt as if he were there to defend our home". The David-Pur family living in Margaliot also spoke on the work in Misgav Am: "We get help from the State, the Ministry of Defense and KKL-JNF. Since they built the security road I can take my daughter to the kindergarten in Misgav Am, because it’s safer to travel here now that they can’t shoot at us. I myself use the security road to get to my orchards, and I can feel the difference".
 
Operation "Security Blanket"
 
Shortly after the start of the war, KKL-JNF America issued an emergency fundraising campaign entitled “Operation Security Blanket”, raising over 1.6 million dollars. Funds were transferred for immediate use, including the funding of fire trucks and emergency equipment, covering fire damage and funding KKL-JNF’s summer camps for children and teenagers.
 
KKL-JNF offices in Germany, France, Switzerland, Mexico, Australia, Canada, Italy and many other countries have begun to raise significant amounts of money for the emergency campaign.
 
Throughout the war period KKL-JNF held summer camps for children from southern and northern Israel in its various field centers. Each summer camp continued for three days, with more than a month of camps fully occupied and hosting hundreds of children aged 6-15 from areas such as Akko, Haifa, Sderot, Kibbutz Nir-Am and children from the Ethiopian Center at Sderot.
 
Donations by friends of KKL-JNF Germany enabled several groups of residents of northern Israel to spend a ten-day break in Germany. Members of the delegations included families whose homes had been destroyed by a direct hit from a missile and volunteers who had stayed in the north to help distressed elderly local residents - coming from Kiryat Shemona, Acco, Nahariya, Haifa’s northern suburbs, Carmiel and the village of Maghar. KKL-JNF undertook the organization of this special project thanks to Benny Bloch, president of KKL-JNF Germany, and Tzachi Ganor, head of KKL-JNF emissaries in Germany, with the help of the Jewish Welfare Organization in Germany.

 
"Rehabilitation Planting" Project
 
During the first year following a forest fire, work focuses on felling and removing burnt material from the site, and simultaneously, on protecting the soil. During second and third years, the main emphasis shifts to controlling the density of the forest as it begins its natural rejuvenation.
 
Trees damaged by fire are weakened and less able to resist parasites and other diseases, however - burnt trees can only be sold for use in the wood industry before they have completely dried out. Accordingly, felling of these areas is a key priority. On the other hand, the immediate felling of burnt trees in a large area can aggravate soil erosion. For these reasons it is at times worth postponing felling in sensitive areas until the cover of vegetation begins to renew itself, during the first winter following the fire. Nevertheless, after a forest fire, salvage cutting is implemented immediately. This has several goals: to exploit the economic potential of the felled trees; to prevent the development of tree vermin; to clear the area for replanting; and to reduce the risk of fires in the future.
 
In natural forests, there is no need for replanting. The forest can be rejuvenated through careful attention to living elements in the field, both seeds and scions. In the case of planted forests, an effort is made to encourage natural rejuvenation by supplementary replanting where necessary. In any case, natural processes can be allowed to take their course during the first year or two. In the case of planted forests, it is prudent to plant certain species that are more resilient to fires, such as cypress and eucalyptus.
 

Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive

 
Past experience has also shown that oak and pine trees recover from forest fires well. During the second and third years after a fire, the natural rejuvenation of saplings becomes important in controlling the density of the trees.
 
Another aspect of the war was evident when the fighting subsided. Wood thieves took advantage of the lack of supervision in the area to step up their illegal tree-felling activities and stumps were clearly visible in places where magnificent trees once stood.
As ceasefire took place, professional teams from KKL-JNF have begun to arrive in areas throughout the Galilee to map and categorize the damaged areas and to assess the damage.  The mapping process was done for several weeks by both ground and air teams to constitute the basis for the overall plan for restoration of the forests.
 
The first stage of such categorization entails cleaning and preparing burned ground in preparation for replanting.  In many cases foresters wait in order to assess the degree that forests will renew themselves naturally. Then, the planting of additional varieties of trees in forests of only one species of pine, converts them into multi-species forests. 
 
On August 21, KKL-JNF Chairman Efi Stenzler accompanied Mayor of Kiryat Shemona Haim Barbivai, President of JNF America Ronald Lauder and Minister of Interior Roni Bar-On in planting the first tree in KKL-JNF's "Rehabilitation Planting" project.
 
Rehabilitation of the forests is vital for human beings and nature alike. The forests fulfill important economic functions in both tourism and wood production. Shortly after the war, the Upper Galilee and Golan Heights regional forest ranger Ofir Gamliel spoke of the measures being taken to restore forests in the area: "We have embarked on an accelerated-growth program for trees in all KKL-JNF nurseries, using increased fertilization to speed up the growing process". At an almost immediate stage nurseries belonging to KKL-JNF have begun the immediate germination of approximately 200,000 seedlings with increased fertilization to accelerate that germination. This was being done in addition to the existing seedlings designated for planting throughout the country.
 
Creating firebreaks
 
Firebreaks are geographical gaps within forests that block the progress of fires, generally situated along lines that offer enhanced control by firefighters, either because of their specific location or because of the type and density of vegetation. They are created across contour lines where fires are naturally weaker and an effort is made to ensure easy access for firefighting teams. Nevertheless, they should also have a north-south orientation, perpendicular to the prevailing hot east winds. Firebreaks require regular maintenance that includes grazing, pruning, thinning and attention to undergrowth.
 
Repairing KKL-JNF leisure sites
 
In recent decades, KKL-JNF has enhanced its forests in preparation for growing numbers of visitors. To this end, picnic sites, vantage-points and leisure corners have been established in numerous locations in order to enhance the leisure experience of visitors throughout Israel. The fires have affected dozens of these sites, and considerable investments will be needed in order to repair the damage. Many projects that were surrounded by trees to provide them with shade have been relocated or removed.

First Year Review

 

Friends of KKL-JNF led a determined struggle to heal the scars of the war before hostilities had even ceased. KKL-JNF workers joined hands with local firefighters and residents to stop the fire from consuming forests, followed by 15,000 volunteers in the first few months after the war who worked in the forests. 30,000 more arrived at the Galilee around Tu BiShvat to plant new trees, according to regional director Aviram Zuk. One year after the war, slopes of the Upper Galilee were being climbed by KKL-JNF employees moving water pipes to water tender saplings planted in protective shafts that help them grow upright.

 

A year has passed since the flames destroyed 12,000 dunams of forests and natural woodlands – 750,000 trees - in Galilee, but the work of cutting down the burnt pine trees on the slopes of the mountains still continued, along with the planting of new trees in the areas that were already cleared.  75,000 new seedlings have been planted in the Naftali Mountain area, also bringing a change in scenery with the planting of more broadleaf trees such as oaks, birch, terebinths and judas trees as well as various fruit trees. Alongside the Navoriya River, several thousands of cedar seedlings were planted to restore the destroyed groves associated with the area for nearly 50 years. Simultaneously, Mt. Naftali forester Shimon Algrabli reported on a work in progress to minimize the massive sprouting of pines in all the burnt areas: "When a forest is burnt, all the pine cones on the trees open up and distribute their seeds. We are now facing a problem that we will have to deal with over coming years". Other parts of the Upper Galilee are being left for natural renewal processes.

 

One year after the Second Lebanese War, KKL-JNF’s footprints could be seen everywhere. Bomb shelters in many villages along the Lebanese border have been renovated by young volunteers from abroad, who came to help under KKL-JNF auspices. Various forms of equipment for the benefit of local residents, especially for children, were constructed in villages such as Avivim, thanks to friends of KKL-JNF. Educational activities in the framework of the Maof program, which is jointly run by KKL-JNF and the local authorities, were also renewed.

 

Site director of the Manara Cliff cable car site Avshalom Tzadok spoke of the growing possibilities for regional development and improvement plans, realized by close strategic collaboration and knowledge sharing by KKL-JNF on landscape rehabilitation. Such plans were realized with the creation of a meeting corner erected with the help of a KKL-JNF Friend from Florida near the Hirma Division military base. Base commander Lieutenant Colonel Golan Ohana wished for such a project to take place: "After I saw what friends of KKL-JNF had done at other army bases, I had a fantasy that one day we would also be able to build such a special corner here".