Dryland Forests and Their Natural Enemies
Dryland Forests and Their Natural Enemies
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter notes that it is interesting that a geologist spearheaded the remarkable afforestation ventures in the semi-arid Negev regions of Israel. Yitzschak “Itzik” Moshe didn't engineer changes in the genetics of trees but changes in the formation of the landscape and flow of water in the desert which produced vigorous woodlands in these dry regions. He did more to redefine the way that trees are planted in Israel than any other individual has done since the 1980s. It is ironic that the new forests he created in Israel's drylands are the subject of such intense controversy. The chapter analyses his role in this controversy.
The desert and the parched land place shall exalt—and the prairie shall rejoice, and blossom.
It is symbolic that a geologist spearheaded the remarkable afforestation ventures in the semi-arid Negev regions of Israel. Not changes in the genetics of trees but changes in the formation of the landscape and flow of water in the desert produced vigorous woodlands in these dry regions. Yitzschak “Itzik” Moshe has done more to redefine the way that trees are planted in Israel than any other individual since the 1980s. A modest, smart, and remarkably good-natured man, no forester in the country is better respected internationally and more liked by his colleagues. It is ironic that the new forests he created in Israel's drylands are the subject of such intense controversy.
Initially, the JNF did not have a clear idea of how to combat the persistent soil erosion in the south. Management was acutely aware of the steady loss of the rich, dusty loess soils and the woeful fate of earlier afforestation projects in the drylands of the Negev Desert. David Nachmias was head of JNF's southern region at the time and told his new employee: “Drive around, look closely and start to think about how you can help me.” One of the reasons that Itzik Moshe is so appreciated by his peers is his unusual ability to listen. When he asked his colleagues he heard any number of analyses about the problem. Moshe then put his mind to the task of stabilizing the slopes in dryland watersheds. It was immediately clear to him that forestry would only succeed if it was part of an integrated soil strategy:
I wasn't a biologist. But already I saw that the tree, water, and soil are all part of the same picture. One of my jobs when I started was serving as representative of the Forestry Department with Israel's Pasture Authority. The loss of biomass was evident everywhere. If you want trees in the deserts to survive, you have to make sure that the surrounding lands are treated properly. You have to pay attention to the land. For instance, I noticed that wherever the slopes faced south, there basically was no vegetation. The sun hit the land (p.125) harder there and soil was lost. Northern slopes, with less evaporation, had more land cover. If you want to succeed at planting trees, you have to think about the soil and water.2
Steadily, he began to learn why some forests flourished others did not, and how to overcome the stress imposed on trees by a hostile, desert environment.
A few years into the job, he received a phone call from his boss's boss, Haim Zaban, then head of JNF's Land Development Authority. Zaban told him to prepare a strategy for the next thirty years for water and soil conservation in southern woodlands. Moshe was not yet thirty and was relatively new as a forester. Only later did he realize that the plan he was to design was breaking new ground and did not rely on conventional forestry practices or protocols. Indeed, dryland countries at the time such as South Africa rarely attempted plantations of drought-resistant pines or eucalypts in areas where annual precipitation fell below eight hundred millimeters.3 Even China, which “pushed the envelope” considerably, encountered difficulties when it extended its northern forest shelter belt to areas with four hundred millimeters of annual rainfall.4 Trees need water, which is why deserts don't have very many of them. But planting had already begun in Yatir where the average rainfall only averaged 255 millimeters a year and frequently was much lower. So the usual precipitation barriers imposed by the rainfall gradient were already broken. The first generation of Israel's arid forests was somewhat unprecedented, offering many lessons.
By the 1960s, Yosef Weitz was looking for an ambitious afforestation project in the south. Part of his motivation involved land reclamation and part was a desire to assert a clear sign of Jewish sovereignty and control in a largely unsettled region. Weitz had been warned by any number of experts that low rainfall made the thirty square kilometers of land lying on Israel's border region south of the West Bank inappropriate for planting his signature Jerusalem pine forest. Never one to let the caution of experts get in the way of grand national visions, Weitz embraced the challenge.
Yatir lies in the so-called transition zone between the semi-arid Mediterranean climate and the arid climates of the desert. Typically there are no rains during the seven-month summer season, and drought conditions in winter are not uncommon. The land was hilly and highly eroded from centuries of overgrazing. Weitz gave the order: Some forty million trees were planted between 1964 and 1969—most of which were Aleppo pines.5 During the initial years, the saplings were not watered, with runoff on the hillsides sufficient to allow the roots to maintain minimal soil moisture.6
Two decades later, when Itzik Moshe began to map out Israel's forestry strategy for the southlands, he had the benefit of twenty years' experience and the wisdom of hindsight from Weitz's massive experiment. To begin with, he saw that the forest was losing large amounts of water, generating considerable runoff during rain events. At the same time, during drought years, the parched pine trees struggled to survive. Utilizing the runoff appeared to hold the key to healthier woodlands. Moshe had always been a great enthusiast of archeology. Without any established international best practices available for such arid conditions, he looked to the region's ancient agriculture for inspiration.8
Before converting to Christianity in the fourth century, the Nabateans were an ancient people with a remarkably successful run of nearly a thousand years in the drylands of what is today Israel and Jordan.9 Although originally nomadic, (p.127) over time they developed ingenious farming techniques. To compensate for the arid conditions, the Nabateans would contour the dry undulated, countryside into a terraced system, building spillways that converted their watersheds into virtual funnels. Rather than course through the valleys, runoff during flash floods was controlled, cascading gently from terrace to terrace. The rainfall would percolate into the rocky lands, creating tolerable conditions for cultivation.10 In other cases, runoff was diverted into increasingly narrow channels until it flooded the valleys, allowing for irrigation of fruit trees on the loess soil.
The same system seemed to make sense in the twentieth century for planting trees on the eroded hillsides of the Negev. Rather than choreographing an avant-garde ballet for the southern foresters, Moshe took traditional steps and created a new form of dance.11 The new tree stands that Moshe designed are supported by natural runoff, through an extensive network of contour trenches or swales. (Swales are depressions in the ground, typically grassy, designed to collect storm-water runoff.) Using bulldozers, topsoil is moved from the sides of the contributing slopes and piled into soil mounds that stretch along the contours of the hills. (The earthwork, of course, causes considerable initial disruption of existing vegetation, but it recovers within two years.)12 The idea is to slow the velocity of runoff so that it no longer tears the little remaining soil from the earth and cannot carry it away downstream. Low-density conifer stands (two hundred and fifty trees per hectare) are then planted and spaced along a terraced watershed—much like strip farming.13
In addition to the extensive landscape manipulation, the newer stands that Moshe planted were more diverse, with native, broadleaf species and fruit trees, planted in the valleys. Yatir was the prototype, but since the 1990s comparable projects were launched, transforming large areas of the northern Negev landscape. Relying only on the irregular winter rainfall, sprawling woodlands in semi-arid areas like Meitar, Dudaim, and Lahavim prospered, changing local assumptions about where the desert began.
Beyond the merits of diversity, the new generation of Negev woodlands appeared to be functionally more successful than the original model. When forester Abed Abulkian is asked about the evolution of the forest, he is quick to praise the new rain-fed forests:
In the first days, the JNF came and planted pines and cypress and simply raced forward. They saw them as pioneer species and didn't really think about the genetic quality of the saplings. And at first they were planting 1800 trees per hectare. That's way too much. Nobody thought about sustainability. Since then, we changed everything and the trees are doing much better. Today local (p.128) Bedouins have discovered the forest as a place to relax and enjoy nature with their families. We try to offer them a fair dissemination of wood from the branches that are cut that we don't need.
The rest of the “people of Israel” work hard all week. We can offer them this wonderful place to come on the Sabbath to hike, to bicycle. The Israel Trail, the national hiking trail, cuts right across the forest and we have hikers who come through. We provide them with a shower and a place to sleep. I even allow occasional cultural events with concerts in the forest that can go until midnight. We provide the chemical toilets and the parking lots. So of course I don't regret the early planting. If Yatir had never been planted, we'd have nothing: any soil that would be left would be completely compacted.14
Some skeptics claimed that there was so much noise coming from the JNF propaganda machine that it was hard to believe the elated claims of success. So comprehensive research was conducted: it confirmed the good news.
The Yatir Forest offers almost a controlled experiment, contrasting the contour methods in the new green parcels with the older stands, as well as with the adjacent, unforested, open spaces, which serve as a “control group.” A recently published, multiyear study run by an Israeli team of researchers from Ben-Gurion University and their Palestinian, Jordanian, and Turkish colleagues highlights the many benefits of Yatir's forestry systems. During the years of 2001 to 2005, for example, no runoff at all was measured leaving the sub-watersheds of the forest. In other words, the trees and the terraced landscaping sufficiently slowed the flow after rain events to allow vegetation to fully utilize the rainfall.15 By contrast, the nonforested, contiguous rangelands showed substantial and high-velocity discharges. These lands are acutely overgrazed, with little vegetative cover. Erosion in these treeless areas was visible even when flow was still low and considerable quantities of sediment were carried away each year. In contrast, the Yatir Forest virtually stopped all soil loss.
This was remarkable, because for as long as anyone has paid attention, the region exhibited a steady hemorrhaging of soil with its organic matter, nutrients, seeds, and promise of life. Experts confirm the particular vulnerability to erosion of soils in the Negev. Subsequent afforestation efforts in a variety of southern locations involving bank stabilization and watershed harvesting produced the same remarkable results. There is nothing inevitable about soil loss in drylands that trees cannot prevent.16 Ecological restoration, however, must go one step further.
Rehabilitating soils after prolonged or acute erosion is important because the loss in land productivity frequently is a key factor preventing recolonization of degraded lands by the original shrub and vegetative species.17 Conventional wisdom claims that afforestation is good for soils in drylands—but the (p.129)
The rain harvesting approach in semi-arid woodlands emerged as a new model for dryland forestry: “savannization.” A new mosaic is created in the desert with water channeled to create vegetatively rich patches. Only 120 trees were planted on a hectare to create a “savanna-like” landscape. Sites typically contain thirty species of salt- and drought-resistant trees, scattered in patches that enjoy enriched water supply from contoured surrounding lands.22 Dozens of shrubs and grasses have begun to take hold.23 In 2013, the JNF forestry department prepared a detailed report in response to ecological critiques where it cites numerous empirical studies that confirm the relative botanical richness of the savanna system and its impressive contribution to soil reclamation.24
Planting in arid regions where annual rainfall is below two hundred millimeters (p.130) definitely requires different practices. For instance, trees need to receive modest irrigation for three summers before taking hold on their own. Planting doesn't usually begin until February or March, when soil moisture is acceptable, as opposed to planting in rainier areas, where moisture is optimal in November.
Trees are also grown on extremely arid terrain in earthen formations called limans. There are two schools of thought with regards to the origins of the word liman. Some say it comes from Russia, where geographers borrowed the term from medieval Greek. It refers to a lake or estuary that is formed by blocking flow with sediment. Another view traces it to the Greek word for “port” as it appeared in the Jerusalem Talmud almost two thousand years ago in a reference to “the Liman of Jaffa.”25 In either case, when Israeli foresters started their first tree-planting foray in the desert in the early 1960s, they expropriated the term for modern Hebrew.
In arid and hyperarid regions, there generally is so little soil on the ground that erosion prevention is not a key factor in land-use decisions. The need to utilize every drop of available water, however, is an obsession. During the cooler months in the desert, there are occasional pulses of rain that lead to massive currents of rainwater in rivulets and channels. In the past, most of this water would settle into depressions or would flow until reaching flat terrain where it quickly evaporated. A smaller percentage formed coursing, ephemeral streams that surged into the Mediterranean or the Dead Sea. Limans showed that the “waste” of such precious water was not inevitable.
Limans are created by building earthen dams (reinforced mounds of soil) at the bottom of the desert channels to trap flash floods. This creates a pond or microcatchment basin whose size ranges between a thousand and six thousand square meters. An access channel (spillway) is constructed along the side of the dam, allowing excess runoff to continue downstream.26 Then all that is necessary is to wait for winter rains to come. Once floodwaters are trapped, the water penetrates the soil, supplying trees whose roots can find moisture and nutrients a meter or two beneath the surface year round.27 Sometimes a single rainfall event creates an amount of water equal to one thousand millimeters or more of rainfall. Limans are home to a variety of trees. Initially these were mostly drought- and salt-resistant eucalyptus species, with an occasional tamarisk or pine.28 Recently, however, mulberry trees have been surprisingly successful in limans, as have carobs and sycamores.29
The first limans were built in the 1940s.30 Based on their success, in 1962 JNF began to duplicate them. At that time most southern thoroughfares were yet unpaved, so the trip down to Eilat could take as long as two days. Part of the rationale for planting was to provide sunbaked patrolling soldiers, drivers, (p.131)
Today, over four hundred limans dot Israel's deserts, still providing shelter from the relentless heat for camels, occasional hikers, and sundry other creatures. Local Bedouins enjoy the small but steady supply of wood and they forage for livestock.32 Migratory birds make pit stops as they cross the vast desert. The overall hydrological effect of the limans is modest. Even during a rainy year in the most liman-intensive regions, only 1 percent of rainfall, or 860,000 cubic meters of water, is actually harvested.33 Limans remain scattered and have not irreparably altered the local desert ecology.
By the time that Moti Kaplan prepared the maps of National Master Plan 22, he could rely on a variety of proven models for Negev afforestation developed by his old university classmate and friend Itzik Moshe. Considerable stretches (over 660 square kilometers) in Israel's southlands were designated as forests. This is more forestland than the Galilee and the Haifa regions combined.34 Today, most of the land zoned as forests in Israel that remains un-planted is located in the south. As the Israeli government seeks to stem the tide (p.132) of unrecognized Bedouin settlement into open spaces, it has increasingly turned to afforestation. Every year hundreds of hectares of new stands are planted under the scorching, dry conditions. But the trees don't seem to mind too much.
It is worth pointing out that, in the more temperate areas of Israel, woodlands flourished in the past. Technically, this would make many of the tree-planting projects attempted in Israel during the past century reforestation efforts. In contrast, no woodlands of any density ever grew in Yatir or in the arid Negev region. Most of Israel's dryland forests today are examples of afforestation: trees were never able to survive before the ancient techniques of water harvesting were brought to bear.
Desertification affects between 10 and 20 percent of the world's drylands.35 With six to twelve million square kilometers of the planet already degraded, chronic land deterioration exacerbates poverty and famine making desertification one of humanities most severe ecological problems.36 Israel's afforestation achievements suggest that arid soils can be regenerated relatively quickly.
Ultimately, word got out and Moshe became a highly sought-after expert in the international forestry community. He has served as a guide to diverse delegations of foresters who regularly visit Israel on professional tours, happily sharing trade secrets with them. He has lectured at UN sustainability and climate-change convention meetings, and often traveled to distant lands, offering advice about the latest techniques for dryland afforestation.37 Even Muslim-dominated Indonesia, with no established diplomatic relations with Israel, has flown him out to bring the Israeli gospel of tree planting to their drier provinces.38 But not everyone is enamored of the results, and there are those who ask difficult questions.
Biodiversity and Afforestation
Alon Rothschild is not particularly keen about Israel's afforestation experience in Israel's southlands: “The problem with forestry in Israel is that there isn't a clear distinction between means and objectives. Planting trees is a means to an end—not a goal, in and of itself.”39 Rothschild brings a scholar's intelligence and a redhead's forthrightness to his work, coordinating biological-diversity preservation efforts at the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), the largest environmental NGO in Israel. Relations between the JNF and the SPNI have long been acrimonious. Indeed, the SPNI was established in 1954 as a frustrated response to the draining of the Huleh wetlands. Despite intense opposition by the nation's incipient conservation community, the drainage of the lake and surrounding swamps proceeded apace. The country's largest and most distinctive wetlands were transformed into farmlands in the northern corner of the Galilee.40 It was the JNF that initiated and implemented the project.41 (p.133) This set the tone for many years of conflict that was ideological, but of course, in many instances also personal.
With Israel's remodeled ecological approach to forestry, the two institutional foes might have entered a new era of reconciliation, or at least of ceasefire. After all, the SPNI should feel vindicated that much of its original critiques vilifying the aggressive, industrial planting practices implicitly were internalized by the forestry agency.42 Densely planted pine monocultures may still survive, but they are relics of a different era and gradually are giving way to more diverse woodlands. Forest projects today have to go through a rigorous review process in the planning stage. Gone are the days when foresters dismissively rebuffed green concerns about habitat with assertions that they were foresters and not zookeepers.43 It is well to accept victory graciously. In fact, there are areas where cooperation exists, and natural alliances form between the two old institutional foes. And yet, fundamental differences remain. Conservation advocates are paid to worry, and Rothschild has plenty to worry about.
In 2000, an international team of biologists led by Oxford University's Norman Myers identified the twenty-five so-called biodiversity “hot spots” of the planet. About 12 percent of the earth's surface contains 35 percent of the planet's nonfish vertebrates and 44 percent of all known plants.44 One of these hotspots is the Mediterranean Basin. All of Israel is highlighted in the map. The local conservation community was delighted by this validating “shot in the arm.” It now had a definitive, international analysis supporting its calls for improved preservation. There are those who argue that Israeli biodiversity is in fact quite normal and surely not extraordinary.45 But it is remarkable that after centuries of deforestation, erosion, and hunting, the land of Israel remains blessed with 534 bird species, 115 mammal species, 103 reptile species, and 2,780 types of flowering plants.46
Recent trends did not appear encouraging and it was important to constantly take stock and set priorities. To that end, in 2002 local zoologists and botanists compiled an Israeli Red Book.47 Like the international catalog the Red List, published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature,48 the Israeli Red Book contains lists of the country's threatened and endangered freshwater fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. It suggests that much of Israel's biological heritage is being squandered.
The diversity of mammals offers one example. Reflecting the range of Israel's rain gradient and transcontinental location, the country is home to 115 wild mammal species, a number that is only 57 percent less than the number of wild mammal species endemic to California, even though the Golden State is fourteen times larger. Europe is three hundred times the size of Israel but only (p.134) has two hundred mammal species. Sadly, twenty-five of Israel's mammal species are endangered and twelve more are defined as critically endangered. Only thirty mammal species enjoy stability and are not defined as threatened at all.49 Five of the animals that survived the nineteenth century—including the cheetah and the brown Syrian bear—never got the chance to enjoy the protection of Israel's strict wildlife protection laws. By the 1950s they had been hunted out of the local landscapes. On the positive side of the audit, five species that were lost to hunters centuries ago—including the Arabian oryx and the lovely fallow deer—have been repatriated. But the overall picture shows two-thirds of Israel's mammals on an unsustainable track.
Birds face similar, albeit less extreme dynamics. Of the 534 avian species recorded in Israel, thirty-eight are classified as endangered; seventeen appear on international lists of globally endangered species; eleven more are extinct as breeders; and four appear to be gone for good.50 Amphibians worldwide are in terrible shape,51 and Israel is no exception. After the draining of 97 percent of the country's wetlands, amphibians' natural habitats have simply dried up. Of the six species of indigenous amphibians, no population is considered stable. The green toad is threatened; the tree frog considered vulnerable; two salamander species are endangered; and the Syrian spadefoot toad and the banded newt are defined as “critically endangered”
For fifty years, the painted frog, once a happy resident of the Huleh wetlands, was thought to have joined the ranks of the globally extinct until it was found by a ranger in the region in November 2011. Excited scientists called the miraculous sighting “the nature conservation equivalent of discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls.”52 All the same, the species' future is far from clear. Like Israel's other amphibians, the frogs literally have nowhere to go.53 Reptiles have fared somewhat better: only a third of the 103 local species are endangered, with three on the list of local extinctions.54 Fish have done worse—almost a quarter of endemic fish are endangered and five are already extinct.55
Rothschild refers to the Redbook as his personal Bible. It highlights his problem with Israel's forestry program: “The Redbook tells us what we need to protect. I sat with two senior forestry experts at the JNF. They had never even heard of the book. Perhaps we are responsible for this gap in knowledge. But to my mind, the afforestation in the south of Israel is being done without any awareness of the ecological consequences. Take the Be'er Sheva fringe-fingered lizard (shnunit Be'er Sheva). This reptile is extremely rare, and it only lives in Israel. When they did the last census in 2002, it was still surviving in the loess soils of the Negev but was defined as endangered. When new forests are planted, its habitat disappears.”56
Rothschild represents a new generation of conservation advocates who (p.135) don't carry the burden of decades of arguments and recrimination. He openly acknowledges that in several cases, his success in affecting public policy has been bolstered by JNF partnerships. Perhaps that is why his critiques emerge as substantive, unlike much of the squabbling and intermittent clashes in the past. Rather than being angry, he is disappointed with his colleagues.
Like many other conservation advocates, biodiversity serves as Rothschild's ultimate criterion for assessing the legitimacy of a forest. He sees no room for planting in areas that already offer a special niche to wildlife or contain important or rare indigenous plants. Along the dryland loess soils in the Negev countryside, for example, there are many such scrubland areas, naturally devoid of trees, but with a dense growth of bushes and shrubs. They can spread over long distances or be limited to a small patch of semi-arid open space that offers a mini-”sanctuary” for nature. Although the untrained eye might see the terrain as barren, in fact the shrub-intensive scrubland supports a reasonably rich variety of birds, insects, and rodents. Rothschild argues that the second that this land is covered by a canopy, it changes the balance. Here, a long-legged buzzard cannot successfully stalk and capture its prey. New populations of birds and other opportunistic critters begin to colonize. Water sources for the natural vegetation are usurped by the new trees that soak up every last drop.
The JNF has responsibility for 1.6 million dunams of land under the national master plan for forests. The question is: what tools does it bring to optimally manage these lands? Part of the problem is personnel and professional orientation. In the past, the JNF hired an ecologist who worked at a national level. Before he retired in 2008, there was an expectation by Dr. Zvika Avni, then head of the Forestry Department, to supplement the work of the national ecologist with a regional ecologist for each of the three JNF regions. Not only did this fail to happen, but Dr. Yoram Goldring, JNF's single staff ecologist also opted for early retirement. Finding a replacement was delayed for years because of a labor dispute. Assuming foresters were attuned to the questions of biodiversity, they would largely have to rely on their own intuition. The SPNI calls for the forestry professional to be supplemented by four to five ecologists, who will not only serve in an advisory role, but actually make and oversee the policies that determine the scope and type of tree planting that is conducted.57
“I know that it's a cliché, but this really is a case of not seeing the forest for the trees,” continues Rothschild. “There is understory, there are shrubs, bushes, geophytes, and of course animals. Birds are nesting there. There is a bit of blindness when foresters look at the progress of the trees as the sole indicator of forest health. Compare the JNF's work in the forests to the way the Nature and Parks Authority operates. They also manage large areas of land. But they see a (p.136) broader picture. Being aware of the ecological dynamics, they will coordinate with the Drainage Authority and reach agreement that bird habitat shouldn't be disturbed until after the nesting season in July. It's fine to cut the grasses along the banks of streams so that flow will not be impeded. But wait until after the nesting season. The JNF needs to start developing the same kind of sensitivity.”58
No area of controversy remains as unresolved as the issue of afforestation in semi-arid zones where the battle lines are clearly drawn. Many nature advocates would like to call off the celebration.59 In response to an early draft of the newly prepared Bible of Forestry management guidelines, the SPNI submitted a four-page list of comments and reservations:
Planting forests in the arid areas causes the spread of Mediterranean species into the Negev (birds like Paridaes, Garrulus, and common black birds). These generalist species supplant the original wildlife that is specialized for this desert or the arid-fringe habitat. Outstanding examples of this involve the disappearance of the Be'er Sheva fringe-fingered lizard and the Houbara from the loess soils on the edge of the desert, because of (among other reasons) unregulated afforestation. Forests based on rainwater harvesting are a serious intervention into the natural habitat on the desert's edge, because they change the hydrology of the entire area. Typically they are filled with exotic species. Moreover the limans in the desert offer a “stepping stone” for ravens and other invasive species into the heart of the desert. Forests based on rainwater harvest damage the biodiversity of specialist species.60
In November 2012, the SPNI issued a more formal forty-two-page report charging the JNF with ecological negligence in its planting strategy in Israel's semi-arid, northern Negev region.61 The authors amass findings from sundry studies showing a retreat among local animal species in response to the forest offensive. For instance, a variety of desert birds, especially those who nest on the ground among the shrubs of the Negev's scrublands (e.g., the black-bellied sand grouse) are crowded out by Mediterranean avian species, better evolved for forested regions once the trees are established.
The report also cites research published in the prestigious journal Conservation Biology that indicts Negev forests for creating an “ecological trap” for some lizard species, in particular the aforementioned Be'er Sheva fringe-fingered lizard. Ecological traps are formed when animals' evolutionary capacity is not sufficiently nimble to respond to rapid modifications of their habitats. In the present case, the planting of trees in the open desert terrain provide avian predators with innumerable perches from which to hunt. The trees increase the vulnerability of the lizards and their eggs to aerial predation. The lizards, unaware that their habitat is now of “lower quality,” are caught in an ecological trap and their numbers decline.62
(p.137) Some nature advocates even point to the biodiversity outcomes in the Yatir Forest study as a basis for concern. While the forest creates a wealth of ecosystem services, the overall number of flora species that inhabit the “poster boy” dryland forest is lower (seventy-nine plant species) than in the non-afforested lands surrounding Yatir (ninety-five species). Not surprisingly, the total biomass of the undergrowth is also much poorer, with the quantity of shrubs and herbs on the forest floor a fraction of those growing on the nearby open spaces. In fairness, however, when the seed banks of the two areas are compared, the gap drops to a trivial difference of 109 species versus 100.63 This suggests that it is not availability of seeds but environmental conditions that determine which species actually germinate. Many of the indigenous plants have not yet been able to successfully establish themselves inside the forest.
There is, however, some good biodiversity news for forest fans. To begin with, forests can be designed with diverse patches that reflect site-specific topographic and drainage properties. In the Lahav Forest near Be'er Sheva, for example, pines are planted on the hilltops; jojobas, Atlantic terebinth, and other species on the slopes; and olive trees in the valleys. After many years of aspersions by naturalists, with Israeli conifer forests being defamed as “pine deserts”—it turns out that pine needles may not be so bad after all. Researchers expected pine needle litter to reduce germination due to its allopathic (chemical suppression) effects. In fact, it serves to protect understory, apparently by regulating temperatures on the ground. Whatever the reason, parcels with pine needles had more than 20 percent more species than uncovered areas (twenty-two versus eighteen species per sample germinated).64
Plants' inability to compete with trees for light was also not considered a factor in forest biodiversity.65 Rather it is competition for water and nutrients between the herbs and the trees (which have a shallow root system) that probably causes the reduced number of shrubs and generally lower biomass of herbs on the forest floor relative to surrounding areas.66 A recent study shows clear associations between species-richness in the Yatir Forest and topographic conditions and soil type. The steeper the incline of the land and the higher the carbon-nitrogen ratio, the greater the number of plant species in the understory—with stands ranging from six to sixty-five grassy species. The results suggest that careful planning of forests can ensure high biological diversity and biomass quantity.67
In more temperate regions of the country, newly planted forests have shown even better capacity for supporting biodiversity. For instance, a joint German-Israel team of researchers assessed the respective assemblages of saproxylic beetle in Aleppo pine stands and oak forests in the north of Israel. The expectation (p.138) was that there would be little mixing and that the insects would be separated, with clear preference for the nonconifer habitat. In fact there was an excellent mixing and little difference in species richness.68 Like many pines forests in the rainier, subhumid areas, these stands show clear signs of a successional process. The best explanation for the results was that young oaks were flourishing as understory under the pine canopy.
The situation is different in semi-arid regions. Present signs indicate that trees really only begin regenerating naturally when annual rainfall levels reach a minimum of three hundred millimeters. It is unlikely that any meaningful successional process has begun in most dryland forests. Veteran ecologist Uriel Safriel believes that because pine plantations are typically short-lived, the Yatir Forest will start to disappear in a decade or two. He reckons that the dying trees may successfully germinate seedlings in open patches where sunlight can reach them, assuming that livestock is excluded there. An alternative strategy might be to start a systematic program of harvesting trees and creating diverse, protected patches.69
This of course raises the million-dollar question regarding the sustainability of Israel's dryland forestry experiment: will the stands ever have the ability to regenerate naturally? A management program could be designed where patches are harvested and replanted periodically to create a diverse, multi-aged forest. But such a scenario is not optimal. The JNF's sustainability principles prioritize creation of ecosystems that regenerate without human intervention or investment. Conventional wisdom holds that Israel's forests south of the Kiryat Gat, Ashkelon, four-hundred-millimeters-per-year precipitation line do not regenerate without human mediation. Few seedlings sprout in such dry conditions, even among Aleppo pines, and those that do rarely survive the heat of late spring. Professor Yossi Riov and his students' research confirm the merits of several management interventions. For instance, the chances of natural regeneration typically are improved by superficial cultivation of the upper soil layer, prevention of grazing, control of ants and other seed-collecting insects, and thinning of mature trees for reduced competition and shade. The latter practice is particularly important for pine regeneration.70 Such measures fly in the face of the basic impulse to let “nature take its course”
When ecology expert Professor Uriel Safriel oversaw the Yatir monitoring project, he spotted little regeneration of trees in the forest there, except for the odd pine sapling on the side of the road, “where there's always sun and water.” Nonetheless, he did not rule out the possibility of regeneration. The dryness and the heat are key obstacles, and the relentless grazing regime makes reestablishing young seedlings practically impossible. The soil inside the forest, however, is growing richer. If conditions were optimal, Safriel believes that over time a second generation might emerge.71
(p.139) In responding to criticism about dryland forests, Itzik Moshe relies on an historic perspective: “The question is: what's your reference point. I look at the traditional agriculture that existed in the desert. People have planted trees in the desert literally for thousands of years. That's the natural dynamic.”72 Millennia of anthropogenic activities undoubtedly extirpated the original trees and vegetation that proceeded human settlement. Even so, today's forests in Israel's southlands are not natural. This doesn't mean that diverse vegetation cannot thrive in them. In Yatir, for example, the colonization of twenty-seven plant species that are not indigenous to the area has been documented. The flora of Yatir and the southern forests is gradually becoming more Mediterranean than the Irano-Turanian (semi-arid) or Saharo-Arabian (arid) plants in the surrounding rangelands.73 With Mediterranean habitats steadily shrinking, dryland forests may help preserve national species richness.
Ecologists generally assumed that, zoologically, forests would be “pine deserts.” In fact a whole suite of animals have moved in—from gazelles, mongoose, hares, and wild boars, to foxes, wolves, caracals, jackals, and even hyenas.74 Besides the shade and cooler temperatures inside the forests, the trees (and the JNF rangers) provide a safe haven for animals fleeing the many hunters who ignore Israel's tough hunting laws.75 Some of the wildlife, like jackals, are new arrivals to the Negev. In and around these new desert forests, a novel ecosystem appears to be emerging. The question remains: is this a good thing?
Some conservation advocates not only seek to slow the spread of trees in Israel's southern landscape; in some cases, they want foresters to remove undesirable trees altogether. While gaps have narrowed, there appear to be real differences of opinion regarding the kinds of trees that have a place in Israel. Eucalyptus trees, for instance, have long been a subject of controversy. This genus of flowering trees includes some seven hundred species, almost all of exclusively Australian origin. Already in the 1940s, researchers working with the JNF tested roughly a hundred varieties of eucalyptus. They demonstrated a broad range of characteristics and abilities to adapt to local conditions.76 Many were integrated into urban development projects of the time. Although never as excoriated as Jerusalem pines, eucalypts were the subject of considerable abuse by nature lovers. Not only their “impure” geographic origins were impugned, but a host of hydrological crimes and misdemeanors were attributed to them. Significant damage, however, has never really been documented.
There are numerous cases around the world where, over time, introduced species blended in harmoniously, even assuming great cultural significance. The Romans had a proverb: tandem aliquando invasores fiunt vernaculi: “In time, (p.140) invaders become the natives.”77 Eucalyptus trees may not enjoy a vaunted status among ecologically orthodox Israelis, but they definitely have succeeded in acquiring their share of Israeli fans.
Naomi Shemer, perhaps Israel's most popular songwriter of the past fifty years, penned hundreds of tunes which immediately took their place in the secular liturgy of national folk songs. In one of her more popular ballads, the lyrics speak of the serenity of eucalyptus trees, emblematic of the timelessness of the Sea of Galilee landscape where she spent her childhood in the 1930s.
- When mother came here, young and beautiful, father built her a house.
- Springs passed, half a century transpired, and curls turned to gray.
- But on the beach of the Jordan, nothing has change: the same silence; the same scenery;
- The eucalyptus grove, the bridge, the row boat, and the smell of the salt plants on the water.78
Before she was murdered by terrorists in a 1977 attack, American-born nature photographer Gail Rubin created an astonishingly beautiful legacy of natural images from Israel. Her many photos of trees are almost entirely eucalypts.79
Today, a softening in positions demanding removal of all eucalyptus can be noted, and there is even a quiet acceptance among indigenous tree-hugging quarters that in some places the eucalyptus can be left standing. For instance in Hadera, where the trees made a modest contribution to swamp draining, eucalyptus groves have become synonymous with the local landscape. (In fact, most of the drainage work was not by the eucalypts “biological pumps,” but old-fashioned drainage canals.) In some other places, however, the xenophobia remains categorical.
Rothschild would like to remove the eucalyptus trees lining the banks of the Yarkon River, which meanders through the center of Israel until reaching Tel Aviv's central park and the Mediterranean Sea. The River Authority there has begun a gradual program to phase out the eucalyptus trees and replace them with willows. This is primarily out of concern for the toxicity of the terpene and polyphenols present in the leaves that fall into the stream, and their effect on aquatic biological processes.80 Cognizant that the local public has grown fond of the tall Australians, thinning and pruning are limited to no more than is necessary to let in sunshine and avoid hitting power lines. When the eucalyptus trees die, however, they are not replaced.81
In other parts of Israel, there is surely a place for eucalypts. It is a question of scale. When planting in the Negev was in its initial experimental stage, the harsh and dry conditions killed many local tree species or left them in dwarf (p.141)
As climate change reduces rainfall in Israel's southlands even further,83 there will be a need to include a shift in tree species. For instance, the present Mediterranean cypress trees (Cupressus sempervirens) will need to be replaced by more resilient cypress alternatives like the Tetraclinis (Tetraclinis articulata).84 The hardy eucalyptus's place in the local forest assemblage will probably expand
Another benign “visitor” is the brutia pine tree. Its natural habitat runs from Georgia and Azerbaijan through Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean. Geographic patent rights, however, remain contentious. The common name for the tree is alternatively the “Turkish” pine or the “Calabrian” pine—from the Italian region where it was planted. Back in 1926, when JNF foresters first introduced the species to Palestine, they called it the Cyprian pine,85 as it was thought to originate in Cyprus and still dominates forest assemblage there. Subsequent dendroarcheological analysis showed that brutia timber made its way to ancient Israel, probably imported from Lebanon for, among other products, coffins and boats.86 Calabrian pines were less given to pest infestation and generally did well in Palestine: well enough for the British to begin importing Pinus brutia seeds in 1937.87 By 1989, 18 percent of the country's conifer plantings were brutia pine.88 Not only are they less susceptible to pests (p.142) and better able to withstand intensive grazing, they are healthier in the high-density stands which characterize the older forests.89 A recent random census of brutia trees planted in the Herzl Forest during the Mandate showed that at age eighty, they are still going strong and show no signs of faltering.90
Pine tree species can look rather similar. Today many people have difficulty distinguishing between the Calabrian, which purists claim as exotic, and Aleppo which are recognized as native. Indeed, for years, taxonomists considered them a single species. With proper coaching, it is easy to identify the darker, coarser needles of the brutia and the ninety-degree angle on which their stemless cones attach to branches. Using the Bible as a baseline, the distance separating the two sister species was never much more than a hundred kilometers, and brutia wood definitely was used in Jericho during the Roman period. With so many of today's “indigenous” Israeli Aleppo pines being descendants of seeds imported from France, attempts to disqualify brutia on grounds of its geographic inauthenticity seem petty at best.
There is a growing school of ecological experts who believe that there might be an excessive level of “fanaticism” associated with ensuring the authenticity of local species assemblages. Exotic species “per se” are not always a problem. To birds in Arizona, for example, the structure of trees, rather than their native, genetic purity appears to be the most important consideration for nesting.91 Restoration projects that remove exotic tamarix trees that colonized there without replacing them with high-quality native trees may harm local bird populations. The southwestern willow flycatcher, an endangered American bird, has even come to prefer the tamarix as its preferred nesting habitat.
On a planet where humans have completely overturned natural balances, native pests may become just as pernicious as introduced exotics. The native mountain pine beetle is a case in point, killing more trees in North America than any other insect—local or exotic.92 As the noted Harvard biologist Steven J. Gould observed: “Over time, the only conceivable rationale for the moral or practical superiority of ‘natives’ (read first comers) must lie in a romanticized notion that old inhabitants learn to live in ecological harmony with surroundings, while later interlopers tend to be exploiters. But this notion … must be dismissed as romantic drivel.”93
Because of some deeply disturbing “horror stories,” there is an element of hysteria in the policy discourse about invasive species. When local ecosystems are unprepared, the results can surely be disastrous. In Guam the notorious brown tree snake obliterated the local bird population.94 Kudzu, an aggressive climbing vine was introduced in the Japanese pavilion in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia as providing excellent animal forage and ground cover against erosion. But it quickly grew out of control and now reportedly spreads across the United States at a rate of ten thousand hectares a year.95
(p.143) The vast majority of exotic tree species, however, never pose any problems at all to indigenous organisms. Israel is full of trees which were transplanted and became an indistinguishable part of the local assemblage. The wormwood tree is a medicinal plant that was brought to the Holy Land by the Crusaders, which fit right in.96 Indeed, the “sabra” cactus is a relatively recent arrival to Ottoman Palestine even as it soon became iconic for Arabs and Jews as the very symbol of their indigenousness. Recent findings indicate that many “invasive species” attributed to Mandate afforestation efforts actually preceded British rule in Palestine.97
A common estimate of the scope of the problem is Williamson's “tens rule”: only 10 percent of introduced species will actually succeed in the wild; only 10 percent of these will become established; and of these only 10 percent will become pests. All told, on average, only 0.1 percent of all alien trees should pose a problem.98 But when that 0.1 percent takes hold, it can be very problematic.
Israel's southern coasts offer a conspicuous example of biological diversity being threatened by nonnative trees. In recent years, there has been a greater sense of urgency. Ever since Moti Kaplan invented “coastal forest parks” to preserve Israel's beaches development, large areas of the shoreline fall under the dominion of National Master Plan 22. Technically, the JNF is responsible for vegetation. In many places along the seaside, with no help from foresters, trees are overabundant.
While British foresters may have been disappointed at the tenacity of some species they introduced, there was one tree that never let them down. The British brought the blue-leaf waddle and coojoong trees (alternatively classified as Acacia saligna or Acacia cyanophylla) from Australia in their war against the coastal sands of Palestine. The dunes' proclivity for shifting made life precarious for coastal residents and their farmland. It did not take long before the Forestry Department realized it had a winner.
Regardless of one's sense of aesthetics, the sheer tenacity of Acacia saligna is impressive. Growing almost an inch in a single a week, it only takes four years for the tree to fully mature. By that time it releases thousands of seeds that stay fertile and dormant underground for years. The trees are not particularly tall and never exceed eight meters. (They actually seem shorter due to their stooped-over willowlike posture.) Every year at the end of winter, they burst out with radiant yellow flowers that are comely enough to be grown in homes worldwide as ornamentals. Its black fruits are legumes that animals are happy to eat. Other benefits that the tree bestows include firewood, fodder, mulch, and of course sand-dune stabilization.
Amihud Goor, the forestry-science pioneer and Israel's first chief forester, included blue-leaf waddle planting among the best practices recommended in the 1955 dryland forestry manual that he prepared for the UN's Food and (p.144) Agricultural Organization. Goor's dry, technical language did little to hide his intense admiration for the hardy species, and for its impressive adaptive and reproductive capacities: “Widely planted in the Near East for sand fixation, erosion control and fuel, thriving on almost every soil, even slightly saline soils. Strongly resistant to drought, doing well even when there is less than 300 millimeters annual rainfall. Useful as windbreak in arid areas and for the road sides. The best species to use for binding moving sand. It coppices freely.”99
For many years, this remained the prevailing view among Israelis who had grown fond of these colorful Australian arboreal immigrants. But this position soon changed 180 degrees as the trees became the bane of nature lovers' existence. By 1999, Amos Sabach, a ranger for Israel's Nature and Parks Authority, was sounding a battle cry against them: “There is no doubt that it is incumbent upon us, the guardians of nature, to fight an all-out war on species such as Acacia saligna, and in any case, we must eradicate the Acacia in nature reserves and open spaces.”100 The reason for the change of heart was its phenomenal success. The blue-leaf waddle had emerged as a classic “invasive species”
Israel's Mediterranean seaboard was once lined with rich sand dunes. As the population grew, beach sands were often paved over or mined—transformed into new neighborhoods. Only scattered remnants of sand ridges remained, with one significant undisturbed system of dunes surviving along the Nitzanim coast. Located in the south, between the cities of Ashdod and Ashkelon, Nitzanim provides a home for a variety of animals as well as humans seeking a noncommercial beach experience. Even if visitors do not catch a glimpse of the nocturnal creatures, footprints on the dunes reveal the rich nightlife enjoyed by surviving snakes, gazelles, foxes, hares, and hedgehogs.
With time it became hard to find open stretches of sand in the coastal park. They were hidden by the thriving blue acacia trees. When researchers tracked the state of the dunes in 2004, they found that over a thirty-four-year period, the trees' range had expanded by 267 percent. And the rate of proliferation was steadily increasing.101 Ecologists became concerned that the indigenous flora that originally traversed the dunes would not survive the assault.
Buxton's jird (meryon holot in Hebrew or Meriones sacramenti for the taxonomically inclined) a little-known rodent, suddenly was brought out of obscurity. This adorable brown gerbil has large, dark eyes, and a tail as long as its body. It is also the only mammal that is fully endemic to Israel. First identified in 1922, its population is dropping fast enough to earn it a place on the IUCN international Red List of threatened species.102 The jird lives and builds its burrows in the soft soils of the country's sandy deserts and clay soils of the southlands, and nowhere else. There it can eat the ample supply of seeds, (p.145) roots, bulbs, insects, and whatever green vegetation and fruit it finds. Until recently, there probably wasn't a forester in Israel who had heard of the critter—much less be able to identify it. And yet, for it to survive the vigorous Australian acacia trees may need to be eradicated.
David Lehrer, director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, did his masters research on the Nitzanim situation. He explains that once introduced to Israel, the Acacia saligna began to act as an eco-engineer, adapting the level of nutrients in the normally nutrient poor soil to its own advantage. In stabilizing the shifting sand dunes, the trees actually created an environment hostile to native flora and fauna. His solution is also uncompromising: “The only way to save the shifting sand dune ecosystem of Nitzanim is to eliminate Acacia saligna.”
It turns out that this is easier said than done. Like many instances of invasive species, the persistence of a seed bank makes the task of eliminating the tenacious trees very trying. This is not only a common problem in ecological restoration, but a frustrating phenomenon with which any gardener will identify. Chopping down or uprooting the exotic species is not enough. The protracted dormancy of seeds, protected by a coat that keeps water and soil microbes out, makes the species almost invincible. Recently, field trials showed that soil solar-ization techniques might eliminate acacia seeds buried under the sands.103 By mulching moist soil with a polyethylene sheet during warm seasons, soil temperatures can be raised as high as fifty-five degrees Celsius. This not only eradicates pests and pathogens, but it can bring weeds and acacia seeds to “sublethal” temperatures and reduce the viability of seed banks. Another strategy, reportedly successful in South Africa, involves utilizing “biological controls” via a rust fungus, Uromycladium tepperianium, that stunts its growth. Alternatively, the seed feeding weevil Melanterius compactus enthusiastically feeds on acacia seeds.104 Needless to say, eradication will not be easy or cheap. Nor will it happen overnight.
Lehrer's recent economic assessment confirmed that with a projected willingness to pay of 8.6 dollars per citizen, the removal of the Acacia saligna would yield a net economic benefit.105 Pua Bar Kutiel, an ecologist and head of the geography department at Ben-Gurion University, has spent more time researching the phenomenon than any other Israeli academic. While she is grateful that the planting of blue-leaf waddle was stopped early in the 1980s, she believes that the problem needs to be addressed at the national rather than the local level. Based on the phenomenal success in addressing a similar saligna problem in South Africa, Bar Kutiel has some basis for optimism. But, to her mind, the solution needs to involve a general biological pest-management strategy for open spaces. This will require considerable site-specific research. (p.146) In the interim, ad hoc measures like felling and even burning trees, along with reliance on herbivores, will have to do.106
In the past it could take a while for the JNF to internalize dangers associated with invasive tree species. Over time, awareness has improved. Zvika Avni was head of the Forestry Department in the year 2000, when complaints reached him about the Prosopis. The “white carob” (Prosopis alba) is a drought-resistant, South American tree whose high-energy fruits and seedpods are excellent fodder. Avni funded research that quickly confirmed concerns that the tree was becoming invasive. All planting was immediately stopped. With the exception of familiar eucalypts in the driest parts of the south, slowly but surely tree planting in Israel became limited to indigenous species. The evergreen Tetraclinis articulate is a Moroccan member of the cypress family which has proven to be very successful (80 percent survival rates), even in Israel's dryer regions, and could be an excellent tree for lining the boulevards of southern cities. Meticulous studies of the “invasion risk” were conducted before granting it a “kosher” status among the select nonnative species that are utilized in Israel's arid regions.107
This position by now is anchored in official policy. When the international board of directors of the JNF decided to adopt sustainability strategies in 2005, the issue was on the table and their position was clear: “The JNF strives to adjust plantings to the habitats and diversity of trees growing and being renewed naturally at every site, and particularly avoid planting invasive species of trees such as the Blue Leaf Wattle /Blue Acacia, Chinese Tree of Heaven, and Mesquite. … In recent years, the main task involved with afforestation is the replacement of the first generation of plantings that included the ‘pioneer trees’ with forests based on natural renewal and that include indigenous copse species and seeds whose origins are based in planted forests.”108
This, of course, does not solve problems of the past. Foresters have a lot on their plate, and only in two cases thus far was the problem prioritized, with Acacia saligna's seed bases eradicated: in the Balfour and Gvaram Forests. This accomplishment was due to conscientious foresters who were particularly committed to the task. Avni remains pessimistic that an eradication plan for the coastal region will be adopted, and even less certain that it will be implemented, as it involves a long process, requiring institutional stamina and a commitment by local land managers.109 Like many unpleasant tasks, the longer a real response waits, the more daunting the job becomes.
During the autumn of 2011, a heated argument broke out between two schools of ecologists on the pages of Science, the world's most prestigious scientific (p.147) journal. The question involved what to do about the lands required to feed the ten billion people projected to be alive soon on the planet?110 One group argued that the best way to protect global biodiversity was through “land sparing.” This meant dividing up lands into two distinct classes: agricultural lands, which needed to be farmed as intensely as possible; and protected lands, which would be set aside for nature and for biodiversity preservation.111 The opposing view prefers a strategy of “land sharing.” This position seeks to improve yields on existing farmlands while simultaneously preserving biodiversity preservation through promotion of both objectives on the same lands.112
The land sparing group based its conclusions on research models that estimated crop yields and densities of bird and tree species in Ghana and northern India. The members of the group found that more species were harmed by agriculture than benefited from it, particularly among species with small global ranges. Ultimately, “sparers” did not believe farmlands would ever contribute meaningfully to preservation goals. It made more sense to focus efforts on maximizing harvest yields on certain plots, assuming this could be done through higher inputs of knowledge and labor rather than by means of chemicals. At the same time, they also assumed that mechanisms could be found to ensure the integrity of the remaining, sensitive protected areas.113
In their response, the land sharing school made several points: First, many countries lack the capacity to effectively protect biodiversity significant areas but have a tradition of environmentally sensitive farming. Second, there are many places where both agricultural yields and biodiversity are high and where biodiversity has even become dependent on agriculture. Areas with shallow soils or low rainfall are only suitable for nonintensive use anyway, so projections of intensive farming on much of the world's lands are unfounded. Finally, if increased yields in the land-sparing scenario are attained without chemicals, in practice the agricultural fields there would actually be very similar in function to those in the land-sharing scenario. Implicitly, they rejected the assumptions behind the land-sparing dichotomy, which divides the planet into “wild” and “cultivated” lands.
In effect, the land-sparing advocates propose a form of ecological “triage.” When resources are insufficient for all to be treated, medical triage sacrifices some patients for others who can better benefit from intervention. Land sparing is rooted in pessimism: farming is inherently bad for nature. If future food production means losing lands, best to sacrifice intelligently and get the best deal you can for nature with what is left. To some extent the debate over the legitimacy of arid-land forestry in Israel resembles this heated argument about reconciling farming with biodiversity conservation.
Rothschild and the biodiversity-preservation perspective he represents are (p.148) heavily influenced by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.114 This vast 2005 report brought together a thousand of the world's top biologists to assess the state of the planet. Its authors considered the full array of natural systems that provide ecosystem services—the so-called “life-support system” for humans. Of the twenty-four ecosystem services evaluated globally, fifteen were declining. Beyond establishing a scientific consensus about a range of conservation issues, the report reframed the discussion about conservation. It shone a light on the many ways that human survival is dependent on nature and the critical need to protect ecosystem services.
While all agree that Israel's new dryland forests provide a host of such services, the nature-protection school fears that they come at the expense of local biological diversity. “The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment confirmed that diversity is the basis for Ecosystem Services—and not the other way around,” Rothschild posits. “Diversity provides for system resilience that allows ecosystems to remain stable and secure under conditions of environmental change. Accordingly, any measure (like forestry) that increases ecosystem services at the price of diversity is conceptually wrong and ultimately unacceptable.”115
This position can be criticized on both theoretical and empirical grounds. To begin with, a closer read of the Millennium Assessment's special volume on biodiversity does not actually find such a stringent position.116 Biodiversity is important—very important. But along with its intrinsic value is its instrumental value: ensuring the provision of ecosystem systems and their services.117 Recently, ecologists have begun to emphasize functional rather than purely taxonomic diversity.118 A major review of ecological restoration in tropical rain forests published in Science reached the conclusion that a successful strategy requires an optimal mix of biodiversity and a steady supply of ecological goods and services.119 The present dynamics of Israel's southern forests may involve a tradeoff whereby original species richness is slightly reduced while other services like soil conservation and carbon sequestration are greatly amplified.
Retired professor Yossi Riov, representing traditional thinking in Israeli forestry, takes this view to an extreme. Riov rejects the underlying assumptions associated with JNF's recent “infatuation” with biodiversity. In his view, biodiversity is always a means to an end, never an end in itself. Israel's nature reserves make up 25 percent of the land designations. Along with the thirty thousand hectares of natural woodlands. Riov believes that it is the reserves' job to protect local species—not forest plantations: “For twenty years, intensive research has been conducted on the subject of ‘Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function’ and the conclusion of many researchers is that diversity does not necessarily improve ecological functioning. Some even argue that in planted (p.149) forests, it is preferable to rely on one or two species most appropriate for the habitat.”120 It is true that agriculture is far more widespread and has a far more significant ecological impact in the northern Negev than JNF forests, which only cover about 6 percent of lands.
Stanford professor Hal Mooney was one of the core authors of the Millennium Assessment's Biodiversity Synthesis. He offers an intermediate view which is closer to today's thinking in afforestation: “Some people argue: every genotype is crucial due to its ‘option value,’ so that future generation might benefit from it. Accordingly we have to protect every little thing. But there is another school that understands that certain species contribute more than others and those are the things that we have to protect first. Depending on the wealth of a society or its resources, you may not be able to protect everything. And of course, I don't think we're sad about stamping out small pox. But characterizing ‘the relative contribution’ is very tricky as it is driven by values and culture. Something may not do much in terms of regulating water or pollinating, but it may provide an important cultural service and need to be protected.”121
During the 1990s, Mooney's Stanford colleague Professor Paul Ehrlich and his wife, Anne, developed an approach to the issue known as the “rivet-popping” hypothesis: Like an airplane, nature has some redundancy in its design. If you remove a few of the rivets of an airplane, it will probably still be able to fly. But there is also a threshold; at some point, if you continue and take one too many rivets out, the aircraft will surely crash.122 The trouble is that nobody really knows the precise “threshold” rivet whose removal will lead to disaster. Similarly, it is exceedingly difficult to know which species is critical for the integrity of a given ecosystem. This leads to a conservative bias that assigns each species the same contribution to ecosystem functioning, fully cognizant that this is not the case. Lacking perfect information, it is well to preserve as much as possible
The Millennium Assessment is of course very concerned about extinctions and processes that lead to the homogenization of life on earth: “The differences between the set of species at one location and the set of species at another location are, on average, diminishing.” Land conversions and invasive species are driving a great deal of these trends and need to be addressed.123 It is wrong to dismiss out of hand concerns that ecosystem services provided by afforestation will not only trump biological authenticity but will come at the expense of overall biological diversity. Eucalyptus forests around the world may sequester a great deal of carbon very quickly, but they can supplant local species and alter soil characteristics, undermining restoration efforts.124 In South Africa, where eucalypt and pine stands consume 9.95 percent of available surface runoff, experts regret earlier alacrity for nonnative species and tree plantations.125 In (p.150) many areas of South Africa, pines have also become an invasive species no less vexing than Israel's blue waddles, with serious impacts for the hydrological balance,
At the same time, the assumption that Israel's planted forests are inherently hostile to indigenous wildlife has little empirical basis. It is true that they can pose dilemmas. For instance, the study in Yatir suggests that when vegetative cover increases, the number of species decreases. Maximizing plant diversity can come at the expense of soil conservation. Yet, when forest managers see themselves as full partners in biodiversity preservation efforts and are open to suggestions, such dynamics can be overcome. For instance, the research team studying the Yatir Forest, which included Moshe, suggested that a “spatial patchwork of forest stands in a matrix of rangeland may increase the overall regional biodiversity. Moreover, increasing the distance between trenches would not affect the anti-erosion benefits, while allowing for better regeneration by the endemic plants.”126 This is practical, valuable advice that can easily be implemented as part of a land-sharing strategic perspective.
The SPNI report highlighting dryland afforestion's dangers for biodiversity conveniently chose to ignore the final paragraph in the Conservation Biology article that postulated the ecological trap for lizards. It describes an adaptive management approach: “We used the results of our experiment to convince the JNF and other land management agencies to abandon the Savannazation plans for the remaining A. beershebensis habitats and to support establishment of a large sanctuary surrounded by sufficient buffer zones to protect the lizard and other species specialized in loess scrublands.”127 Indeed, even as the national master plan called for intensive plantings in the study area, forestry officials decided to leave the remaining habitat areas undisturbed as a sanctuary, concentrating additional tree planting around historic water holes and remains of ancient human settlements where mature acacia trees were already standing.128 The encounter underscores the potential benefits of dialogue and a cooperative spirit. Conservation advocates and foresters are quite capable of working together, to produce optimal results where biodiversity and dryland afforestation are compatible.
Increasingly the world has come to recognize that the dichotomy between “wild” and “developed” systems is simplistic. A rich continuum exists between “natural” and urban or intensively managed lands. The fact is that human activities—intentional and inadvertent—have changed many ecosystems beyond recognition, creating new dynamics, combinations, and sometimes beauty. The new configurations are known as “novel ecosystems” (or “emerging ecosystems”).129 These areas are fully functioning ecosystems but the present species composition and relative abundances did not occur in (p.151) previous biomes. The new systems may be quite stable or they may need management, but all are the result of inadvertent human activities or intentional interventions. Astonishingly, recent assessments suggest that only about a quarter of original wild ranges still remain on the planet. Novel ecosystems make up a full 37 percent of terrestrial open spaces.130
Ecologists and conservation advocates have come to recognize that it is very difficult and sometimes impossible to restore altered ecosystems to their original state. Even when it is possible, it may be prohibitively costly. The salient question is: “Can humanity move beyond the illusion of pristine authenticity in these areas and design management schemes that maximize beneficial changes and minimize damage to the ecosystem”
Dr. Marilyn Jordan, a conservation biologist who works for the Nature Conservancy organization, takes a balanced view. On the one hand, she is vigilant in efforts to prevent introduction of invasive species. Sometimes it is possible to restore native species. But for the most part, there is no choice but to accept novel ecosystems and work with them to maximize the conservation value and ecosystem services.131 She has compared conservation to working through the five stages of grief, arguing that more and more ecologists are reluctantly accepting that we live in a human dominated world. And some are discovering that patchwork ecosystems might even rival their pristine counterparts. The notion that humans might be able to actually improve on nature is not a new one. Indeed the environmental “pioneer,” René Dubos—the same man who coined the phrase “think globally—work locally”—based an entire book, The Wooing of Earth, on this theme. In this book Dubos argues that the human ecological footprint not need be a heavy destructive one. On the contrary, he offers dozens of cases from around the world where human activities have had a beneficial effect, turning hostile natural terrain into magnificent gardens.132
Recently, the JNF adopted a new compendium of forest practices and principles called the Bible of Forestry. One of the main objectives it proposes for Israeli forestry is “improving the landscape.” But Rothschild does not accept this as a touchstone for progress in forestry. “Who said the landscape needs improving?” he asks, demanding that the KKL better characterize an operational definition for “degraded lands” before it begins planting trees to rehabilitate the soil. Most Israelis do not agree. After thousands of years of human settlement, labels like “wilderness” or of “pristine nature” are misnomers. If humans act with caution and humility, degraded unfertile lands can be coaxed back to life and produce a variety of ecosystem services. The results can be fetching.
Professor Moshe Shachak spent forty years as a researcher of Israel's desert (p.152) ecosystems. Before long he was an unofficial scientific advisor for Itzik Moshe and the JNF forestry program, designing and monitoring its savannization projects. Shachak has long since held the view that there is nothing natural about Israel's southlands. At the same time, there is a great deal to preserve. Shachak explains: “It's fine to argue, but first we all should share common assumptions. That is, that all of the ecosystems in Israel are the result of human activities. One can look at the interaction of species and their abundance, and try to preserve them. But this is not preservation of wild nature—only the preservation of species, whose assemblage is anything but natural. So today humans have the responsibility of deciding within this novel ecosystem what should we preserve and what should we create.”133
Biodiversity preservation, of course, must be a critical threshold consideration for all land-use decisions. The genetic richness of the planet needs to be saved so that future generations will enjoy its many potential benefits. The planet is changing and it is important to leave the best possible genetic base for future evolution and adaptation. There are those like Rothschild who worry that if we focus too much on the general appearance of the “stage” without focusing on the details, we'll lose the “actors.” This is a completely legitimate concen.134 At the same time it is well to remember that many of Israel's natural habitats should not be glorified for their authenticity. The present distribution of the Be'er Sheva fringe-fingered lizard is the direct result of centuries of ecological degradation, with an opportunistic organism taking advantage of a landscape dramatically altered by grazing and human activities.
Undoubtedly, many species will not survive if they find their habitat completely transformed and can no longer rely on its natural support system. Butterflies, for example, tend to be particularly dependent on a specific, larval host-plant species.135 Should a specific plant type be lost, the butterfly species will soon be gone as well. Even so-called generalist insect species, which are not as fussy, have their limits and usually can only eat a few different kinds of leaves. In its natural ecosystem, a plant can support 170 species, but outside its normal range may only support 5 species. Even if a forestry strategy is not driven by individual species conservation considerations, it has to be exceedingly cognizant of ecosystem stability and long-term productivity and soil fertility. But passive “preservation” approaches in a country like Israel frequently don't make sense. Restoration ecology is full of practical suggestions for actions that can return original biodiversity from seeding to wildlife repatriation.136
The challenge of creating the full range of ecological dividends in afforestation programs is of course universal. China during recent decades has invested the equivalent of a hundred billion dollars to increase its tree cover from 12 to 18 percent.137 Today new forests fill half a million square kilometers of China's (p.153) land.138 More trees are planted there than in the rest of the world combined.139 And yet, reports suggest that the trees may not always be a blessing for the land. Biodiversity often suffers. Birds and other creatures find the rows and rows of fast-growing, monoculture tree farms inhospitable. In others cases, plantations cause serious disruption to the hydrological balance. One metaanalysis there suggests that when pine plantations trees are planted on grasslands, they reduce water yield on average by 40%—eucalyptus by as much as 70 percent.140 The heroic reforestation efforts have had little apparent effect on desertification rates or even the ferocity of dust storms.141
Moreover, newly planted Chinese saplings are not doing well. At least a quarter of the trees die during the first year and subsequent mortality continues to be high. Even the World Bank, never accused of excessive ecological sentimentality, advised China to focus on quality rather than quantity of saplings. After decimating so much of its natural woodlands during the past fifty years, China's decision to pursue a policy of afforestation and restoration is impressive and the scope of its efforts is unparalleled. But the resulting ecological benefits should be much greater.
Today about 4 percent of the world's forests are plantations.142 In 2000, afforestation provided jobs for some eleven million people. Like the newly created woodlands, the number will continue to increase.143 About a third of the world's timber is from planted forests and this number should reach 50 percent before long.144 This is a very good thing, as demand is also growing rapidly. If nothing else, by planting new forests on degraded lands, more ancient woodlands, along with the biodiversity they contain, will remain untouched.
At the same time, the billions of new trees that will be introduced can either be planted with forethought and concern about the planet's ecological health or be an exercise in yield and profit maximization. Israel's experience suggests that there is a continuum between old-growth ancient forests and tree farms. When done properly, silviculture offers proof that “land sharing” is possible. Of course it is unrealistic to have one's proverbial cake and to eat it completely. When trying to generate ecosystem services, there may be cases where some trade-offs will be made between productivity of ecological services (including timber) and biodiversity.145 But newly planted woodlands can offer a “middle ground” where nonnatural forests, even on very dry lands, improve quality of life and ecosystem functioning. Just as humans are capable of making enchanting gardens, they can create forests that offer magical experiences and homes for countless other creatures and plants. With sensitivity and resourcefulness, afforestation, even in the desert, can directly—and indirectly—be reconciled with biodiversity.
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