Environment: On the road to recovery?

Environment: On the road to recovery?

01 December 2011

published by www.jpost.com

Israel — Lack of funding means highly flammable pine seedlings aren’t being thinned from Carmel forests, risking repeat of the deadly blaze.

Pausing atop Mount Carmel a year after a deadly fire engulfed over 5,000 hectares (12,355 acres) of Israel’s largest forest, Dr. Yehoshua Shkedi had no doubts that the sprawling land below him would recover.

“I’m standing now in the Carmel, and I’m watching the fire area from Haifa University, and from what I see now, I think it’s the best point to talk about the fire,” the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) chief scientist told The Jerusalem Post over the phone on Thursday morning. “You see the scars of the fire and you see patches that did not catch fire – and the patches that caught fire but are recovering slowly but surely.”

“There was never a question of whether the forest would recover or not,” Shkedi continued. “The Mediterranean ecosystems are familiar with and are used to fire for the last 7,000 years. There is no surprise here.”

Rather, according to Shkedi, the question was how the forest would recover. What has begun to occur during the past year – as occurs after every forest fire – is that the ecosystem is changing, he explained. The forest has been overtaken by a “less desirable species,” rapidly reproducing pine seedlings that tend to catch fire easily. Meanwhile, portions of the Carmel Forest are particularly vulnerable, as they have been hit by several fires in the past few decades – including a huge fire in 1989 – causing repeated damage to the ecosystem and thereby much slower recovery, Shkedi added. The vast majority of the forests on Mount Carmel are controlled by the INPA but a small percentage – around 10 percent – are maintained by the Jewish National Fund as well.

“After every fire, pine seeds germinate and we have carpets of pine seedlings,” he said, stressing just how flammable this makes the Carmel region. “In order to manage the Carmel properly, we now have plans to take out the seedlings and make sure the local natural forest will flourish.”

Dr. Omri Bonneh, JNF northern region director, agreed, adding that “the main challenge in rehabilitating the forest in Mount Carmel will be the shaping of the new natural regeneration by selective and sometimes very intensive thinning. because natural regeneration tends to be very dense.”

This recovery will require a significant amount of money – NIS 20 million for the woodland vegetation alone – and while the government promised a recovery budget of NIS 55 million following the fire, the INPA has yet to see any of these funds, according to Shkedi.

“We are doing our task very partially in a very limited way,” he said. “It is absolutely not enough.”

And these very limited efforts are only happening in the Carmel; nobody is even considering the area around Jerusalem, which is extremely dense and therefore quite dangerous, Shkedi added. Likewise, much of the forestland from Kiryat Gat in the South to the Lebanese border in the North remains untreated.

Prof. Ido Izhaki, head of the Carmel Research Center at the University of Haifa, agreed with Shkedi that the pine tree density must be thinned and was equally disturbed that the efforts are facing a “money problem.”

In addition to the practical procedure of decreasing forest density, Izhaki stressed that money must also be allocated for research, as it was after the 1989 Carmel fire.

Izhaki said that three months ago he sent a letter to Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan and received a response saying that the ministry has not been given the money from the government yet, and therefore cannot disperse it.

“It’s unbelievable because after the fire in 1989 we got a lot of money and did huge studies,” Izhaki told the Post. “I know that [the ministry] didn’t get the money, but still I’m sure they can find some money for studies – they have their own resources.”

He and his fellow researchers are “amazed” that studies did not begin immediately after the fire, said Izhaki.

“We have to understand the effect of multiple returning fires; We know what happens when you have fires every 20 years, but we haven’t studied the effects of fires every five to six years,” he continued. “We know there are global changes, so we don’t know what the recovery process on Mount Carmel is.”

Shkedi praised the Environmental Protection Ministry’s ongoing efforts to acquire the NIS 55 million from the government, but also stressed the urgency of the current situation.

While pine trees have been part of the natural Carmel environment for thousands of years, they were never as abundant as they are today, in part due to the fact that the JNF has been planting trees all over the country – thereby spreading seeds – for years now, Shkedi explained.

“Whenever you have a disturbance, just because of the mass of seeds, [pines] have an advantage over the local population,” he said.

In response, Bonneh said that the trees the JNF has planted are no different than the native species throughout the Mediterranean region.

“First of all, the forest that burned in the Mount Carmel conflagration was a native forest, Aleppo pine,” Bonneh told the Post. “If you look at all the coastal forests around the Mediterranean basin, starting form Portugal and Spain in the west and ending with Greece, Turkey and Israel in the east… the native forests along all these coasts are composed of pine and oak. And JNF plantation in Israel is a mirror image of a typical Mediterranean forest that is composed of both pine and oak. We did not invent anything – we just tried to follow sound ecological considerations in planting our forests.”

Other natural Mediterranean species, like the oak tree, various pistachio species and cistus (“lotem”) plants are much more resistant to fire and oftentimes simply regenerate new stems after surviving the flames, according to Shkedi.

In the JNF section of the woods, while foresters will be mostly reliant on natural selection backed by pine thinning, they also do plan “to enrich biodiversity by planting oak, pistachio and carob,” Bonneh said. The JNF staff plans to use the experience gained from rehabilitating 1,200 hectares worth of forest along the country’s northern border after the Second Lebanon War, he added.

As far as animals go, it is very difficult to compare population numbers to those before the fire as animals are always on the move, Shkedi explained.

“In areas that were badly burned – like where the bus was burned – just next to those areas the animals are recovering very slowly,” he said. “But in other areas you see other species are recovering slowly but surely.”

Just a few days after the fire, for example, Shkedi said his team witnessed jackals returning already to eat the carcass of a wild boar. Snails, grasshoppers, ants, rodents and birds have also returned in large numbers, he added.

“They are slowly but surely coming in,” Shkedi said.

Shkedi predicted that it will take about 10 to 15 years for the burned region to return to “its best” rejuvenated state, but that in spots that were hit by the four or five relatively big fires in the last two decades, the re-growth will be much more gradual.

He stressed that without the proper funds, the ecological preparations necessary to help curb the recent frequency of fires will be impossible and the fires might even increase as a result of global climate change.

“The money is not here. If we will have the money to invest in order to prevent fire, the effect will be minimized” he said.

With regards to climate change, Izhaki added that he was sure that last December’s catastrophe was in part fueled by global warming, as dry Decembers are “pretty new” to Israel and require much attention, particularly in an official UNESCO biosphere such as Mount Carmel.

“It means that the residents have to live in the biosphere, with the biosphere,” Izhaki said. “We have many conflicts between the authorities and the communities, and we have to find a way for the local residents to live in peace with the biosphere and we should also conduct a study on how to do it.”

But first and foremost, Shkedi stressed, the pine tree density must be taken care of with the necessary government funds.

“The trees have to be de-rooted. We have too many trees,” Shkedi said. “I started by saying the Middle East has known fire for the past 7,000 years. People were here and they cut trees and they engaged in grazing and they made fires for themselves.”

And sometimes those fires went out of control.

“What happens today is people are not cutting trees or grazing as much, so the vegetation is growing too much,” Shkedi continued. “I’m a naturalist, but when the forest is too dense it’s prone to fire. What we need to do is what our ancestors did throughout the past 7,000 years; They were cutting trees.”

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