Goats, Cheese and Pine Forests?
Jewish National Fund is probably more famous for its lush pine forests than for gourmet goat cheese. But these days, cheese might symbolize JNF’s approach to the environment better than pine trees.
The 101-year-old JNF recently began an innovative program of awarding licenses for small grazing herds of goats in its forests. The animals thin the forest of weeds and underbrush, which, left unchecked, could cause devastating fires. At the same time, enterprising farmers sell specialty cheese made from their milk.
The cheese is a byproduct of a new era in the organization’s history. It’s a sign of the balance between JNF’s twenty-first century goal -- protecting the environment -- and its historic development mandate.
Allowing goats to graze is just one of the ways JNF conducts “sustainable development,” the careful management of the social, economic and ecological consequences of its land management actions. Sustainable development seeks a meeting between the needs of people and the ecological requirements of the environment. Founded with the mission of purchasing property in the land of Israel for the Jewish people, JNF is now focusing on the sustainable development of that land.
JNF spent its first 50 years buying land, purchases which made the group the second largest landowner in Israel, just after the state itself. JNF spent its next 50 years developing land, planting over 240 million trees, building infrastructure for housing, parks and recreation areas, and helping settle immigrants from around the world. Today, JNF seeks to meet the needs of Israel’s people by preserving the environment, conserving scarce natural resources and finding ways to address Israel’s water shortage.
“We work to build new communities without harming nature or the environment,” said Yehiel Leket, World Chairman of JNF. “Wherever there is a contradiction between development and conservation, JNF gives clear preference to conservation,” Leket added.
When JNF began its land purchases in the early 20th century, Ottoman Empire regulations forced land owners to develop their property -- or the land would revert back to its previous owner. As a result, JNF developed the land it bought by planting trees. Knowledge about the types of trees planted grew with experience and, like other forestry organizations around the world, JNF learned lessons along the way.
For example, in 1910, JNF planted olive trees in Herzl Forest, also known as Hulda Forest in central Israel near Rechavot, intending to raise a top-quality crop in high demand. But the trees died because the proper flora was not matched to the local topography. JNF later learned that ornamental pine trees were more suited the local environment and planted vast pine forests. Today, however, JNF is moving away from pine forests and toward planting trees indigenous to the area during Biblical times, such as carobs, oaks, olive and fruit trees.
In the past, forestry met immediate needs, such as defense of extensive land tracts and soil conservation. Today, planting forests serves a wide range of purposes, such as improving environmental quality (by serving as "green lungs"), providing outdoor leisure and recreation sites, supplying wood, and upgrading range lands.
Planting trees also helps prevent desertification by halting soil erosion, fills the air with oxygen, and removes dangerous pollutants from the air. Trees provide much needed shade in Israel’s sunny climate, a buffer for rainstorms, and a home for birds and other native species. Israel’s forests also provide breathing space for rest and relaxation, prevent flood damage and constitute a barrier against ecological nuisances, such as dust and noise.
To help plan its forest management, JNF conducts various studies and surveys for a better understanding of tree growth processes and how to handle disease and pests. Its foresters also travel to the United States for training by the U.S. Forest Service.
JNF’s approach to sustainable development includes its policy of paving easily accessible roads in forests, creating recreation spots and intelligently developing open spaces. This enables people to enjoy nature, while furthering conservation education and protecting Israel’s green lung, the vital band of undeveloped land around Israel’s cities. This policy differs from that of other authorities in Israel, which believe protecting nature means closing it off from visitors, collecting huge entrance fees and preventing development, thus “saving” the land from the masses.
Another example of JNF’s new outlook comes from its approach to desert management. Approximately 60% of Israel is desert. Long-term research in Israel shows ecological management of semi-arid lands can halt increasing desertification. JNF contributes to the battle against desertification by developing special tree planting and farming techniques suited to desert conditions, such as planting trees in small depressions in the earth, which helps capture moisture. This kind of technique was used hundreds of years ago by the ancient Israelites, Nabateans and Byzantians.
Some environmentalists initially thought it unwise to plant a forest in an arid climate, believing the trees would absorb much needed water that could be used in other ways. However, researchers found that not to be the case. A recently released study by Professor Dan Yakir of the Weizman Institute’s Environmental Sciences and Energy Department found that trees in the Negev Desert’s Yatir Forest, planted by JNF, are growing at a relatively quick pace and that the area of the forest is expanding. The study found trees in the desert have an efficient water preservation strategy that keeps moisture in the ground and, to the scientists’ surprise, allows them to absorb the same amount of carbon dioxide as trees in fertile climates.
If open spaces aren’t protected, they can become too arid. This happened after hundreds of years of overgrazing at Adamit Park in the western Galilee, when the earth became barren from overuse. JNF has successfully developed a green belt of trees and native species in Adamit Park. This process of taking degraded terrain that has become desert and reversing the process by planting trees is called savannization. And JNF’s model is being copied by groups in other countries, such as Afghanistan and Armenia, where tree planting projects are taking shape.
JNF made its debut into the scientific and environmental world at the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, where it presented its scientific findings on forestation, water and other topics. JNF was in a unique position as the only Jewish non-governmental organization at the summit. In September 2003, JNF presented its scientific research to hundreds of people at a United Nations conference in New York.
Partners with the U.S.
Behind the scenes, JNF has been fostering scientific research for over a decade through its involvement with a number of scientific and forestry organizations.
For example, JNF has partnered for the past 15 years with the U.S. Forest Service for research and technical exchanges, as well as education training in forestry, range management and watershed monitoring.
“JNF has played an important role over the last hundred years in the land that is now Israel,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth. “For the past 15 years, we have seen some of that through our collaborative program.” For example, he said, “JNF is the world’s leading authority in arid land forestry. We face similar issues in natural resource management here in the United States, and for that we could use JNF’s help.”
Bosworth also remarked on JNF’s balance between allowing public access to forests and protecting the environment. “Outdoor recreation is great on public land -- that’s one of the things it’s there for,” Bosworth said. “But when recreational use reaches a certain level, it has to be managed to protect the resource. JNF has been successful at opening its forests to the people, while still protecting the environment.”
JNF also works with the International Arid Lands Consortium (IALC), an independent non-profit organization committed to scientific investigation of the unique problems in arid and semi-arid regions, to halt the desert. As a founding member of the IALC, JNF works closely with researchers from major arid land universities, as well as with researchers from neighboring Egypt and Jordan on research and demonstration projects aimed at halting desertification and water resource development.
Through the Consortium, JNF is able to offer expert assistance to countries grappling with desertification. JNF shares its experience with other members of the IALC and learns from their experience in the field. JNF also cooperates in R&D with various Israeli organizations, such as the Ministry of Agriculture and the Volcani Agricultural Research Organization (ARO) Rehovot, and has established the International Center for Desert Research together with the Ben Gurion University of Negev Desert Research Institute at Sde Boker.
JNF has faced criticism from some Israeli environmental organizations, which claim the JNF cannot really work to protect the environment because of an inherent conflict of interest with JNF’s role as land owner and developer.
Even so, JNF has worked with green organizations and the Israeli government to pass laws creating a balance between environmental needs and the needs of the people. In a move to protect Israel’s future land reserves from extensive urban development, JNF joined forces with the Nature and Natural Parks Protection Authority (NNPPA), an established environmental organization, to oppose construction in forested areas, beaches and other open spaces.
In 1995, JNF worked with several environmental organizations, including NNPPA, to obtain passage of National Master Plan #22, which outlines Israel’s future development. This master plan included a first step toward protecting Israel’s open spaces from urban development. The legislation had two major goals: preserving flora resources and sustaining quality environment as green space for the population for the purpose of welfare, pleasure and recreation. It serves as the legal means by which JNF fights hundreds of urban intrusions and grants JNF the legal authority to protect the future land reserves of the Jewish State.
JNF has also learned when not to intervene. For example, in the early 1950s, JNF conducted Israel’s largest drainage project when it drained the Hula Valley swamp to prevent pollution of the Sea of Galilee and revive depleted agricultural lands. At the time, this was regarded as a great success: The project accomplished 90% of its scope and goal and bolstered Israel’s pioneering image. Intensive agriculture flourished in the valley for 40 years, but it also increased nitrate and phosphate pollution of water flowing from the valley’s peat soils to the Sea of Galilee. In addition, peat soil erosion resulted in a valuable loss of topsoil.
In recent years, amid growing understanding of the adverse environmental impact of this project, part of the Hula valley has been converted back into swamp, including a lush, green sanctuary for plants and birds, a canal network to prevent peat soil erosion, and the installation of a barrier across the valley to prevent nutrient rich peat waters from contaminating the Sea of Galilee, all of which attract eco-tourism.
Another important aspect of JNF’s role today comes in determining the best and most efficient uses of water in Israel. JNF provides farmers with the best information on crops, some of which originates at the JNF’s three research and development centers in Israel. JNF also supports the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, a regional center for environmental leadership on Kibbutz Ketura, in its water management and agricultural endeavors.
A leader in the development of reservoirs to recycle water and catch rain, JNF has helped farmers understand the quantity and quality of water needed to grow many crops. By recycling wastewater and catching rainwater in its reservoirs, JNF provides farmers with much needed water for their crops, which in turn allows fresh water to be used for other purposes. During the winter of 2003, JNF reservoirs played a crucial role in capturing rainfall for future use -- water that would otherwise have been wasted.
“Protecting Israel’s remaining open spaces is critical—not only for Israel today but for the country we are stewarding for our future generations,” said Rabbi Michael M. Cohen, Director of North American Projects at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and the Green Zionist Alliance. “The strategic cooperation between JNF and the NNPPA is a wonderful step forward toward fulfilling both organizations’ missions and toward protecting the actual land of Israel.”
Encouraging Recreation and Bird Watching
JNF has also established the Friends of JNF, an organization that hosts environmental education programs in JNF forests and parks, such as nature hikes, bike tours and outdoor concerts. The Friends of JNF also sponsors bird-watching centers where people can observe and learn about the various birds living in, and migrating through, Israel, which serves as a transit hub for birds flying from Europe to Africa and back again.
JNF works both in Israel and in the United States to promote the holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year for trees, with tree plantings and environmental conservation education programs. One such program, a joint effort with the U.S. Forest Service each year in Phoenix, attracts thousands.
JNF has many additional environmental accomplishments. While JNF is responsible for land reclamation, settlement and agriculture, it is also responsible for shoring up collapsed river banks, dredging river beds, building dams to replenish underground aquifers, constructing water reservoirs, anchoring drifting sands and landscaping road ways.
The Kishon River rehabilitation, in the Jezreel Valley, is an example of JNF’s river reclamation projects. The Jezreel Valley was mostly swampland until Jewish settlers drained it and turned it into fertile farmland in the 1920s. After 70 years of intense usage, the land deteriorated and crop productivity decreased. Chemical fertilizers caused pollution, the land became more saline, and ground water levels increased, creating an ecological challenge. To further complicate the problem, the valley’s Kishon River was polluted with toxic chemicals. Waste and materials accumulated at the bottom of the riverbed and filled the water canal so that water could no longer flow in the riverbed, sparking flooding.
As part of its role as caretaker of the land, JNF was asked to clean up the Kishon River and the Jezreel Valley lands. The rehabilitation project included lowering the underground water levels by building an internal drainage system in the valley. This resulted in a drop of the salinity level to within acceptable limits. JNF deepened and cleaned up the Kishon riverbed, packing up toxic material in bags, which were sent for treatment. Today, clean water flows in the Kishon River, nearby towns and roads are not flooded and surrounding recreation areas are full of people on weekends and holidays.
Knowing which trees to plant, how to care for the land, and how to use water efficiently so that crops can grow in Israel’s arid climate are all part of JNF’s environmental role. JNF has learned to balance the needs of the land with the needs of the people and in the process has grown into an internationally respected organization that can provide scientific and practical expertise for the benefit of other countries with arid and semi-arid climates.
“I was aware of the good work JNF has done in planting trees over several decades, but until I went to Israel recently, I had no idea what a huge contribution JNF has made and continues to make to Israel,” says former U.S. Senator Paul Simon. “I am particularly grateful for their pioneering on water, something that is vital to Israel’s future and to peace and stability in the region.”