Beit Oren, Israel — As Israel’s largest fire in history devoured thousands of acres of the Carmel, Jewish National Fund Chairman Effie Stenzler vowed to sponsor a week of tree planting to replace the millions consumed by the blaze.
But as environmental officials begin plotting the reforestation of the Carmel, there’s a consensus among Israeli forest experts that the symbolic ritual of tree planting should be avoided in order to let nature take its course.
Foresters from the University of Haifa Carmel Research Center, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and even JNF have all cautioned against planting trees in the first several years after the devastating forest fire. Though the trees burned, they also released seeds that now carpet the charred swaths of forest, which will yield the first saplings by next spring.
Experts say that if the renewed forest is over-dense with trees, it will make the forest prone to future fast-spreading fires. Alon Rothshild, an expert with SPNI, issued a position paper on the group’s web site warning against a hasty reforestation campaign prompted by swelling coffers and public pressure for action.
“Sometimes we do things with no professional eye and we make mistakes,” Rothshild told The Jewish Week in an interview. “The main issue is to let nature and forest refurbish itself. After an event like a fire, there needs to be natural slow mechanism. The Carmel fire was a tragedy for the environment, but this landscape knows how to rehabilitate itself after a fire.”
Instead of planting trees, forest experts say there will be a need to dilute the number of trees in the region in order to ensure that the flammable turpentine in the Carmel’s pine trees is kept under control.
“Humankind all the time tries to govern nature and tell it what to do,” Rothshild continued. “Nature shows us that it is too complicated. We can’t govern it. Only manage it.”
The JNF initially estimated that some 12,500 acres of the forest were singed in the fire. Omri Boneh, chief JNF forester for northern Israel, estimated that the figure is closer to 8,000 acres.
Still, that’s about 25 percent of the entire area of the Carmel woodland. It’s nearly twice as large as the entire area of burnt forest from the six-week war with Hezbollah in 2006.
The four-day blaze in the forest north of Haifa was presented in local and international media as an ecological disaster, but forest experts were significantly less hysterical about the fallout. Fires, they note, are one of the main means by which the pines and oaks in the Carmel forest renew themselves, albeit over a much more limited area and with longer time lapse between major blazes. The trees of the Carmel are naturally equipped to spread their seeds over large areas after fires. Forest regeneration, they say, will add to the biodiversity of the region.
“Our experience is that you don’t have to do anything because several of the species can deal with the fire and are waiting for the fires,” said Ido Itzhaki, a forest expert at Haifa University’s Carmel Research Center. “There is a carpet of seedlings all over the Carmel. We have to let nature do its job.”
Surveying charred naked tree trunks from a winding mountain road dense with evergreen forest turned brown, it is hard to remain unmoved. Hugging the sharp folds in the mountainside, Road 721 descends from a junction just beyond Haifa University, through the thick woodland that eventually part to reveal the deep blue Mediterranean. It is still one of the most stunning roads in Israel, but it is changed for decades.
On the side of a mountain opposite the burned-out apartments of Kibbutz Beit Oren stands a makeshift memorial to the approximately 40 prison guards killed at the site two weeks ago.
“It’s heartbreaking that so many died,” said Adel Mariat, a 29-year-old lawyer. “We’re used to seeing a big green park. Now lots of the vegetation is damaged. This will take a lot of years to refurbish.”
Curiosity seekers from all over Israel pull their cars over to edge of the road to snap pictures of the destruction and shake their heads at the loss of life. All spoke with nostalgia about the Carmel.
Benny Margalit, 79, a Haifa native who trained as a Haganah member in the forests outside Beit Oren, gazed up to the kibbutz.
“We always picnicked out here, but now the park benches are orphaned. The whole area will take 40 to 50 years to refurbish. What a waste.”
Meanwhile, despite the storm of criticism about the government’s lack of preparedness for the fire, the parliament declined to appoint an independent committee to investigate the fire. Though the state comptroller initially fingered Interior Minister Eli Yishai as the main leader responsible, Yishai isn’t in danger of being forced out after getting backing from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
Back in northern Israel, Omri Boneh, a forester who manages the northern region for JNF, said the only planting over the next year will be for ceremonial purposes. Only in the following year will JNF review whether planting new trees is necessary. In the spring the group will be able to determine if trees that were partially damaged by the fire will continue to live. Still, most of the trees burned in the fire were ones about 80 years old — a mature forest, Boneh said.
Recalling when he planted some of the trees that were burned in the blaze, Boneh said, “There’s a personal connection between a forester and the forest he planted 25 years ago. … To get back to the previous situation will take a long time.”