NEW YORK, N.Y. – Now that the flames on Mount Carmel have been contained, the Israeli government and environmental organizations are engaged in damage assessment. With the lessons learned from the fire that took 42 lives, destroyed an estimated five million trees, and caused some $75 million in damaged property, rehabilitating Mount Carmel won’t be as simple and straightforward as the Jewish National Fund’s signature tree-planting campaign.
“We learned a lot from the Second Lebanese War in terms of forest rehabilitation.: says Dr. Omri Bonneh, director of Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF)’s Northern Region. “Generally, forests rejuvenate after fires. While we plant new trees in some areas for recreation or for other reasons, our basic policy is to rely on natural processes, which may sound easy, but in fact is extremely demanding, labor-intensive, and costly. When trees regenerate naturally, they grow very densely. We have to be on top of every square meter of the forest, performing thinning operations and forest maintenance, in order to ensure a healthy forest that can also be used for recreation.
“It is already abundantly clear that it will take a long time to restore the lush green appearance of Mount Carmel. The ecological damage is enormous. Vast tracts of planted forest, natural woodland and carpets of flowers, together with thousands of birds, reptiles and mammals, have been destroyed. It will take decades for the landscape to be rehabilitated.”
JNF director of communications Jodi Bodner spoke with the Ledger about how the organization plans to restore the damaged forest in even more effective ways.
Q: How has JNF been involved in forestation and land management on Mount Carmel?
A: KKL-JNF’s work on Mount Carmel differs slightly from other parts of Israel. In addition to nurturing the forests that lie outside the national park and the nature reserves, KKL-JNF has also made its resources and experience available to help nurture the natural woods in the area, and to enable these areas to receive visitors in an appropriate manner.
KKL-JNF works year-round to prevent fires on Mount Carmel, and to extinguish them when they break out. Watchmen are stationed at Ofer observation point and in the Haifa University Tower, and alert attention to fires deep in the forest. KKL-JNF also tends to grazing areas used by flocks from both Druze and Jewish villages in the area. Controlled grazing is a good example of coexistence in nature: as the goats satisfy their hunger, they help reduce the risk of fire by removing thick undergrowth and flammable material that gathers on the forest floor.
Q: What were the major challenges in the Carmel forests that made the fire so hard to contain?
A: According to researchers, what determines the force of a fire is the forest conditions, and at times even the best human deployment cannot help: The extent and intensity of the fire depend on the conditions in the forest. A young and damp forest will not burn. A mature forest that has accumulated many combustive materials will burn easily. The report states: “With no rainfall for the past eight months, the forest became extremely dry, and along with the strong winds, the present fire grew so wild. Nothing could have stopped it from reaching its great proportions. The smoke began at 11 a.m. and by noon we had a full view of massive flames.”
Q: What is the JNF’s role in the area now, post-fire?
A: Rehabilitating the Carmel region does not simply involve planting new trees, though a natural reaction to such widespread destruction is a desire to replant immediately. JNF is part of the government committee on the rehabilitation of plant and animal life in the Carmel region, led by Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan, which also includes representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Ministry of Finance, Nature and Parks Authority, and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. The committee is responsible for formulating a comprehensive plan for rehabilitating the animal and plant life damaged by the Carmel fire that will be approved by the Cabinet.
Extensive areas of the forest will be left to regenerate on their own, a natural but nevertheless labor-intensive and costly process that will take decades to complete. JNF foresters will go tree-by-tree to determine which can be salvaged and which must be removed. As the trees regenerate they will grow very densely, requiring foresters to monitor every square foot of the forest and perform frequent thinning operations to ensure tree health and forest biodiversity. This will continue for years, until the trees reach a specified height. Alongside natural regeneration, limited areas will be prepared for eventual replanting once the state of the Carmel forest is thoroughly evaluated. New plantings will mostly be focused around recreation areas, allowing the public to gradually return to and enjoy the Carmel’s unique landscape.
In instances of replanting, a variety of indigenous trees will be used. It is important to note that contrary to popular belief, the Aleppo pine trees that were previously planted in the forest are entirely native to the Carmel Mountain range.
JNF foresters are experts in forest management, rehabilitation, and soil conservation. For more than 20 years, JNF has had a cooperative exchange program with the U.S. Forest Service to share research and best practices, and is a member of the International Arid Lands Consortium. In 2006 they gained tremendous experience renewing burnt forests in the Galilee after the Second Lebanon War.
Q: HaAretz recently reported that rehabilitation won’t be the usual “planting celebration” JNF is known for. What is JNF’s position on how the Carmel Forests should be restored and managed going forward?
A: In addition to natural regeneration and replanting, the renewal process also involves:
Clearing debris, including burnt vegetation, burnt equipment from recreation sites, and trees that were bulldozed during the fire to prevent the flames from spreading;
Preventing soil erosion in the absence of the vegetation that usually stems the flow of water. This is extremely important because, although the earth appears scorched, it still contains “banks” of undamaged seeds and organic material vital to the regeneration process. If this is swept away by rain before the restoration gets underway, the damage will be intensified;
Creating firebreaks and thinning woodlands to prevent the spread of future fires;
Restoring roads and recreation infrastructure.
JNF’s “Operation Carmel Renewal: From Black to Green” campaign is intended to raise $10 million for two main objectives: Re-greening the Carmel region, and providing equipment to Israel’s fire service and KKL’s firefighting department. JNF most likely will not plant anything for a year in the region, to see where nature takes us.
For more information: www.jnf,org