Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Leaf it to Israel this Tu B'Shevat

This Friday night (Shabbat) marks the Jewish semi-holiday of Tu B'shevat. Literally, the 15th of the month of Shevat is known mystically as the New Year of the Trees.

For people of a certain generation, Tu B'shevat evokes fond memories of donating spare change to the JNF - Jewish National Fund - to support their afforestation efforts in Israel. Afforestation is the concept of planting trees where there were none before (reforestation is planting trees that had once stood, but were cut down). 

Driving through the forests from Jerusalem to Beit Shemesh or around Arad, it's easy to take for granted how successful JNF has been. Less than 100 years before the creation of the state, Mark Twain visited the land of Israel in 1867 and wrote of, " ...[a] desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds-a silent mournful expanse....There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of the worthless soil, had almost deserted the country." 

Twain would hardly recognize the land today, with 240 million new trees planted. Notably, Israel is the only country in the past 100 years to have a net gain of trees. Numerous countries around the globe are facing desertification - where unsustainably harvested forests suffer from the effects of erosion, which quickly turns into wasteland. JNF's guidance has been sought after by many other countries and international organizations looking for help with their efforts to curb desertification in their own land.

The trees were planted for many reasons: to curb mudslides in the mountainous north, as part of efforts to drain swamp land and make it suitable for agriculture, provide shade in the hot desert sun, and also just to give new immigrants flocking to the country in the first half of the 20th century something to do.

When it came down to what species of tree to plant the decision on Aleppo pine wasn't too controversial - it's indigenous to the region and grows quickly in the rocky soil. It wasn't until many years later, after forest fires started to become a regular concern in the beginning of the 21st century, the the old, homogenous forests started to become a liability.

During the 2006 war with Lebanon, rockets fired by Hizbullah set fire to thousands of acres of trees in in north. Four years later, a devastating fire that broke out on Mount Carmel  Carmel region killed 44 people and consumed 5 million trees. Many fires broke out around the country over the summer of 2012 that were attributed to arson.  Fires were never part of the natural forest ecology in this region, but with this new threat facing the land, how forests are planted here had to be rethought.

Efforts are being made by the Ministry of the Environment with the help of JNF to replant burned forest with a mixture of tree types to help guard against new wildfires sweeping through, as well as to promote the health of the forests in general.

*Bonus* Israeli election day fun fact! The first Knesset convened purposely on Tu B'shvat.

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