Alon Tal

Israel’s fragile forests

It's time for renewed commitment to a harmonious relationship between the people of Israel and the land of Israel

Tu Bishvat is not only a great celebration, because during this holiday’s resurrected, festive, organic “seder”, meal we get to drink four glasses of wine — or beer. It is also a holiday where we are expected to so do something important for the earth. The annual ritual of planting trees is more than just an esoteric ritual. When millions of Israelis plant a tree it is a communal act of solidarity with the world’s ecosystems and a voice of confidence about our future on this planet.

But this year Tu Bishvat falls during a sabbatical “shmita” year where we let the land of Israel rest. There won’t be any local tree planting ceremonies. Nonetheless, as we celebrate their birthday, it is well to take advantage of the country’ collective breather from establishing new trees to think about how those already providing us with the oxygen, timber, shade and habitats are doing around the world.

Truth be told – it is not a pretty picture: Most projections suggests that woodlands covered about half of planet earth before humans discovered that tilling the soil or raising domesticated herds offered a better gamble for food security than hunting and gathering. While one can argue about technical definitions of forest, the best present estimates suggest that we are down to 31%. During the past ten thousand years, humans have destroyed about 40% of the earth’s original forest stands.

The decimation continues apace. Modern technology, along with massive population growth during the twentieth century, accelerated the phenomenon dramatically – with half of historic deforestation taking place during the past hundred years. Present estimates suggest that in 2015, the earth will lose the equivalent of 36 football fields of forest every minute. That’s a lot of trees that pay the price for modern society’s insatiable appetite for products and for the human inclination to have more than two children per family. If one wants proximate reasons for this loss, primary drivers include clear-cutting for agriculture, forest fires, ranching and logging.

The impacts of course are not limited to trees. A recent study by the World Wildlife Fund documents that during the past forty years, half the wildlife which once shared the planet with us has gone missing. The study concludes that about three quarters of the destruction is directly linked to habitat destruction and exploitation. In a growing number of lands, animals simply have no place to go. When you distill the dynamics down to their essence it comes down to this: too many people need to feed themselves, put a roof over their heads and acquire wood products. Whether you call it “ecosystem collapse or a “bona fide biodiversity holocaust”, it is certainly our generation’s collective disgrace. It is a disgrace because we can do better.

Ostensibly, Israel’s experience serves as an inspiration to a world concerned about deforestation that seeks to change direction. It is not true, as propagandists boast, that Israel is the only nation on the earth with more trees now than at the start of the 20th century. Other countries have also discovered that trees are a renewable resource. But the extent of our woodlands’ rehabilitation is unprecedented: notwithstanding the dryland conditions, we have gone from less than 1 percent to about 8 percent tree cover throughout Israel. Trend is not destiny.

While there were some ill-considered, monoculture forestry practices which characterized Israel’s early stands, planted during the 1950s and 1960s, lessons have been learned. Today’s forests are more diverse, ecologically sensitive and accessible to the public than ever before.

Would that we could end a Tu Bishvat message with such good news! It seems a shame to spoil a birthday party with predictable gloomy and humorless ecological pessimism. But surely the trees would want Israelis to know the truth: The land of Israel’s biodiversity is in freefall.

For fifty years we could justifiably applaud our country’s commitment to conservation through its set aside programs. Nature seemed to flourish as decision makers pledged to protect 25% of the countryside as reserves. Nonetheless, during the past decade, an increasing number of species are losing ground and many are on the verge of disappearing. According to a simple calculation that I recently made, about a third of Israel’s mammals are either critically endangered or locally endangered. Ours may be the last generation in Israel to have any amphibians surviving outside of zoos. Along with reptiles they are vanishing quickly.

So if Israel is such a tree planting champion — what’s going on?

The truth is that Israel’s situation is not so different than that of the planet. More and more people demand more and more hamlets, housing and highways. Developers, and all too frequently senior government planners, see our magnificent forests as real estate in waiting for new neighborhoods, shopping centers and roads. The recent decision to put a freeway through the heart of the Jerusalem forest is symbolic. All over the country — from Elad to Ashdod to Tzur Hadassah — forests, reestablished through the hard work and investment of the Jewish National Fund and its supporters are under attack.

As we think about trees this Tu Bishvat it is well to consider our present circumstances and renew our commitment to a harmonious relationship between the people of Israel and the land of Israel. This means joining local and national efforts to ensure that urban development does not spill over into protected open vistas and parks.

Let there be no mistake: protecting trees involves a battle with well-financed, highly motivated, economic interests. It also means that we need to start a serious national discussion about demography, carrying capacity and whether it is wise (or ethical) to continue to encourage population growth, knowing that it will lead to decimation of our ecosystems, landscape and quality of life. It cannot go on forever, so let’s talk about what limits make sense. Tu B’shvat during a shmita year may be just what we need to remind ourselves that it is even more important to preserve Israel’s trees than plant new ones.

About the Author
Alon Tal is a professor of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University. In 2021 and 2022, he was chair of the Knesset's Environment, Climate & Health subcommittee.