Behind the Headlines: Low Toll in Lost Forestry Attributed to JNF Prevention

This summer has seen fewer and less devastating forest fires in Israel than the disastrous dry season of 1988, but not because the number of arson attempts has declined.

Unfortunately, says Moshe Rivlin, world chairman of the Jewish National Fund, the intifada is still with us, and with it the desire to burn and destroy JNF forests that have changed the face of the land.

The reason for the relatively low toll in ruined trees and gutted groves, he said, “is the action we have taken over this past year to be able to prevent fires spreading.”

In particular, Rivlin notes, JNF enlisted the counsel of the United States Forest Service, resulting in better equipment, better preparedness and much better cooperation between JNF and all the various authorities in Israel that collectively contribute to fire prevention or control.

“We ourselves at JNF now have 13 small and maneuverable fire engines in service around the country, and another three big ones.

“Our radio communications network has been totally overhauled: We now deploy 350 units, and we are in constant contact with the Israel Defense Force.

“We man 41 fire lookout posts 24 hours a day, and we have 30-odd fire-fighting teams on alert around the clock. Some are mobile patrols; others are stationary teams who are ready to respond to an emergency call instantly.

“In the forests themselves, we have been systematically widening the paths between the glades, so that fires cannot sweep through large wooded areas with the speed and ease that we witnessed last year.

EFFECTIVE COORDINATION

“And above all, there is effective coordination between us, the IDF–and that includes the air force–the fire services in each locality, the Nature Reserves Authority and the Society for the Protection of Nature.

“I cannot exaggerate the importance of this cooperation, both in preventing blazes and in getting them under control.”

There is, however, a “bottom line,” says the JNF chief, which people don’t always understand. “They see readily enough that damaged and destroyed forests need funds to make them live and grow again. But they don’t necessarily realize how much prevention costs.”

The reclamation work, spearheaded by JNF’s “Tree-for-a-Tree” campaign, has already achieved success. Much of the ravaged land has been replanted, “though nature, of course, has to take its own time. Forests don’t grow in a year.”

A high-level U.S. Forest Service team, which toured Israel extensively during May, was out-spoken in its praise for JNF.

In its “Report, Recommendations and Action Plan” submitted by L.A. Amicarella, director of fire and aviation management, the team noted: “On our 1989 trip, we saw many of the suggestions offered as a result of the December 1987 trip already put into sound action by JNF.

“The team was enormously impressed by the outstanding accomplishments of JNF in afforestation, species management and fire prevention approaches in the Mediterranean and dryer climate land.

“Afforestation techniques and successes are significantly better than any the team has seen, read or heard about in the United States or elsewhere in the world. We hope that the USFS will benefit from Israeli expertise in this area.”

The U.S. experts note in their report that Israel will have to grapple with the challenge of forest fires even after the intifada ends.

“All of Israel’s forest fires are man caused,” the report notes. “Even if arson ignitions are reduced in the future, Israel’s growing population and forest-use patterns guarantee that there will be enough sources of ignition for damaging forest fires to occur.

“With this background, the team recommends that JNF begin training personnel in fire management planning.”

INTENSIVE STUDY TOUR

One result of JNF’s close cooperation with the USFS is that a group of eight JNF foresters will be spending two months in the United States this fall on an intensive study tour, with the focus on fire prevention and control techniques.

While intifada-related forest fires have been uniquely JNF’s headache this past year, Rivlin, his staff and JNF’s worldwide support system can hardly remain unaffected by the overall economic crisis in Israel, and especially over the development areas of the Galilee and the Negev, where unemployment far exceeds the national average.

Vice Premier and Finance Minister Shimon Peres recently met with Rivlin and JNF’s new director general, Ori Orr, to discuss how JNF can deploy its resources and activities in concert with various government economic recovery programs.

Rivlin says the minister found a sensitive, responsive and indeed enthusiastic reaction on JNF side, even though there were differences over certain ideas in the agricultural sector.

He stressed above all the contribution of JNF’s tourism and recreation development projects to the economic well-being of the surrounding areas both in immediate terms of employment and in the longer-term effect of drawing domestic and overseas tourism to the areas.

In the Negev, JNF has embarked on major landscaping at Mitzpe Ramon, the sleepy little town perched on the edge of the Ramon Crater.

JOBS NOW AND LATER

A private entrepreneur is planning a major hotel complex for Mitzpe Ramon and JNF’s work on a scenic driveway and nature reserve dovetails into the overall planning. Once again, says Rivlin, the prospects are for jobs now, and jobs and tourism later.

In Eilat, JNF has agreed to prepare the infrastructure for residential housing on behalf of the ministry of housing, a novel departure for JNF, but undertaken, says Rivlin, willingly in light of the economic needs.

In the Galilee, JNF has helped one kibbutz extend its fruit orchards and is examining other such projects.

Forestry, moreover, though no longer a mass employer as it was in the barren, treeless days of the early 1950s immigration, can still provide promising work for men with a mind for it.

“Our forests today require more than 600,000 man work-days a year,” says Rivlin. That translates into some 2,000 foresters: half tenured staffers and the others are seasonal workers.

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