Known for its pristine beauty and clean mountain air, Biriya Forest in Galilee has traditionally been a favorite recreation spot for nature-lovers.
This year, however, the first thing visitors to the 5,000-acre forest see is destruction: Tens of thousands of mature trees lie dead, as if they were discarded Popsicle sticks, while hundreds of thousands more have been severely damaged.
Ironically, the winter’s heavy snowfall, which did so much to replenish the nation’s endangered water supply, has now put its forests in danger. Snow and sub-freezing temperatures combined to uproot a million trees throughout the country, predominantly in high-altitude areas in the north and central regions.
Now, forestry professionals, new immigrants and youth volunteers are racing the clock to clear away the debris before it becomes this summer’s tinder.
Dressed in work clothes on a drizzly day in April, 70 new immigrants are busy sawing fallen tree trunks and collecting scattered branches. Judging from the large pile of sawed wood near-by, they have been at it for several hours.
“This is an extremely important job,” says Paul Ginsberg, a Jewish National Fund forester. “If we don’t clear the dead trees away, they could catch fire when the weather gets hot. Also, to prevent mudslides, we need to plant saplings that will put down roots. We can’t do that until the site is cleaned up.”
Uri, a lab technician from the former Soviet Union, says the work “is hard but satisfying. I wanted to get a job in my own field, but so far, no luck. In the meantime, I’m just happy to have a job that pays the bills.”
At nearby Levy forest, JNF has put to work more than 1,000 youths during a five-day working vacation. Though they will spend the majority of their time hiking and playing, the teens also will pitch in and help clear away flammable twigs and branches.
For 300 “veteran olim” teen-agers, whose trip has been sponsored by JNF and Gadna, the pre-army unit of the Israel Defense Force, “the experience is doubly important,” says forester Avi Saguy.
“These kids have been in Israel only a couple of years, so most haven’t developed the strong connection to the land that binds Israelis together.”
JNF, which currently employs hundreds of new immigrants in forestry, has actively sought immigrant workers since the 1950s, Bunny Alexandroni, a JNF information officer, points out. Though most took the jobs solely for the pay, “over time many fell in love with the land. They stayed on, and today they hold senior positions.
“Decades ago, thousands of unemployed immigrants were put to work planting trees, building roads and clearing campsites, and forests like these are the result,” she says.
Sadly, it was these very forests, planted soon after the establishment of the state, that sustained the most damage. In an attempt to quickly turn the barren land green, forestry experts planted whole mountainsides with Jerusalem Pine.
Ironically, the Jerusalem pine — the very tree that was favored then for its ability to grow quickly in shallow soil — was this year’s No. 1 victim. About 95 percent of the destroyed trees were Jerusalem pines.
“Back then, it seemed like the perfect tree for Israel’s special needs,” forester Paul Ginsberg explains. “It’s incredibly versatile and attractive. It will grow in many types of sites, in high or low altitudes.
“Unfortunately, as we learned the hard way, the trees lost their grip when the heavy snow came, and they fell on top of one another from the roots. The rest snapped in the middle, from the sheer weight of the snow.”
Though still stunned by the extent of the damage, both, the JNF and Parks Authority say they have learned some valuable lessons in the past few months.
“For one thing, we now realize the need to plant a greater variety of trees at a single site,” says forester Saguy. “That way, if one type of tree fails, there will be others to hold soil in place. During the snowstorms, the Cyprus pine fared very well, for example.”
While acknowledging that earlier foresters made some mistakes in planning the forests as they did, “it’s always easier to look back with 20/20 hindsight,” says Ginsberg. “For a country almost devoid of trees 40 years ago, we have made tremendous strides.”
He adds: “It took 40 years to learn this lesson, and will take another 40 years to see the results.”