They planted a forest at the edge of the desert. From there it got complicated.

Trying to judge the success or failure of Yatir, Israel's largest human-made forest, depends on the way you define success. And the person you’re asking.

By Josie Glausiusz
Published 24 Mar 2023, 09:57 GMT
The Yatir Forest in Israel ends at the border with Palestine. The largest human-created forest in Israel, 12-square-mile Yatir was created in the 1960s on semi-arid land with four million trees, 90 percent of them Aleppo pine.
Photograph by Danielle Amy, National Geographic

A delicate breeze drifts through the sun-dappled understory of these spare, out-of-place woods, softening the heat of late July. Beneath the spindly Aleppo pines, spiny shrubs nestle among limestone boulders. The only sounds are the buzzing of insects and the occasional roar of a military jet.

In spring, though, following the winter rains, this place bursts with new life. Pink and yellow wildflowers carpet the forest floor; camels and horses graze in open meadows. Gazelles, hyenas, foxes, rabbits, fieldmice, lizards, and snakes all dwell in Yatir—a human-made oasis on the northwest edge of the Negev Desert, around 30 miles south of Jerusalem.

Planted in the 1960s by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), a non-profit land development agency that manages more than a tenth of the country, Yatir is Israel’s largest planted forest. Had these hillls been left alone, they might be covered in low shrubs like Jerusalem sage and hairy bread-grass. Instead, four million trees, 90 percent of them hardy Aleppo pine, spread over almost 12 square miles of semi-arid land.

Abed Abu-Alkean, a forester at Yatir since 1982, stands for a portrait on the northwestern part of the forest. Abu-Alkean's team consists of nine people who manage and protect the forest.
Photograph by Danielle Amy, National Geographic
Agronomist Omer Golan examines a dying pine tree in Yatir Forest. Golan is part of a team of three in charge of monitoring the health of Israeli forests.
Photograph by Danielle Amy, National Geographic
A young eucalyptus tree grows in Yatir. For 30 years the plot had walnut trees, but they didn't survive. In sections of the forest requiring replanting, experts evaluate the geography and species of trees and decide whether or what to replant.
Photograph by Danielle Amy, National Geographic

The trees are neither irrigated nor fertilised, and yet somehow the forest has survived for almost 60 years. “Yatir Forest proves that we can combat desertification, and heal the wounded earth,” the JNF website says. At a time when people around the world are looking to tree-planting and forest expansion as a way to soak up carbon dioxide and combat climate change, Yatir is an inspiring example.

But can it last, and was it really a good idea?

Planting trees on semi-arid shrubland is misguided, some Israeli environmentalists argue, because it endangers birds, lizards, and small mammals that have evolved in tandem with native shrubs and grasses— and it doesn’t do much for climate anytime soon.

Blooming desert vegetation sits on top of Mount Amasa on the edge of Yatir. In this nature reserve, Mediterranean vegetation meets desert growth. Among the wild plants in the reserve are hybrid phlox, fritillary, tulips, and herbs. At the top of the mountain is a lookout point over the Arad valley, the southern portion of the Judean Desert, and the mountains of Moab on the horizon.
Photograph by Danielle Amy, National Geographic

What’s more, the forest’s ability to survive in a warming world is uncertain. Between 5 to 10 percent of Yatir’s trees—up to 80 percent in some areas—have withered and died in the past decade, as a series of extreme droughts have struck the region. Meanwhile, the forest is not regenerating: Drought and grazing by sheep and goats are killing the pine seedlings.

"Trees here are pushed to the edge," says Eyal Rotenberg of the Weizmann Institute of Science, who has studied Yatir for more than two decades. He and his colleagues think the forest can and should survive. But if so it’s going to have to change.

Carbon isn’t everything

After lunch under the pines at the institute's long-term research site at Yatir, Rotenberg brushes away harvester ants grappling with leftover rice grains, then explains how Weizmann ecophysiologist Dan Yakir, the leader of the project, set up the research station in 1998. Yatir receives around 11 inches of rain per year, on average, mostly from December to March. The forest’s resilience in such a dry climate was a puzzle, as was its impact on its surroundings.

"For us, Yatir is a laboratory where we study the forest's effect on climate, at the edge of the conditions for forest growth," says Rotenberg, who joined the project in 2000. "What we learn now about Yatir will be serving a warmer, dryer world in many regions."

In principle, expanding forest cover in similar places like the semi-arid Sahel, where the ambitious Great Green Wall project has made halting progress since it was launched in 2007 by the African Union, could slow global climate change, as well as desertification.

Dan Yakir at the research station of The Weizmann Institute on March 21, 2022. Yakir, an ecophysiologist, set up the station in 1998.
Photograph by Danielle Amy, National Geographic
A pine tree at the Weizmann research station has various monitoring sensors attached.
Photograph by Danielle Amy, National Geographic
Weizmann Institute scientist Eyal Rotenberg cleans a sensor, one of 300 on a research tower in Yatir. The sensors detect various elements in the atmosphere.
Photograph by Danielle Amy, National Geographic

Fifteen years' worth of measurements in Yatir, beginning in 2001, do show that the forest takes up a surprising amount of carbon—as much as forests in more humid areas, says Rafat Qubaja, a Palestinian researcher, now at Arizona State University in Tempe, who did his PhD at Weizmann. Semi-arid shrub and grasslands cover nearly a fifth of the planet’s land, some 10 million square miles; if they all were planted with trees, the Yatir results suggest, they might absorb around 10 percent of current fossil fuel emissions.

But the extent to which they would cool the planet is less clear. On satellite pictures the Yatir Forest forms a huge dark blob in the bright-coloured, shrubby desert, which means it absorbs more solar radiation. As Rotenberg and Yakir showed in a 2010 Science paper, the darker Yatir Forest absorbs more energy, converts it into heat, and releases it back to the atmosphere. Initially the heat released by Yatir outweighs the cooling effect of its carbon dioxide absorption. Rotenberg estimates it will take more than 200 years for the forest to have a net cooling effect—if it survives that long.

The Yatir forest explodes into full bloom.
Photograph by Danielle Amy, National Geographic

Of course, forests have other benefits besides their ability to absorb carbon. Qubaja, who was born in the West Bank town of Tarqumiyah, came to relish the tranquillity of Yatir.

"Many times I am sitting below the trees and enjoying it, the quiet, the personal peace," he says.

Trees aren’t necessarily natural

Though Aleppo pines are mentioned in the Bible, pollen surveys and archaeological studies suggest the species was rare in the region until the 20th century. First planted extensively in Palestine in the 1920s by the British Mandate Forestry Service, they constituted about 50 percent of the forests planted by the JNF by the 1980s. They grow rapidly and on any kind of soil. They can be seen now all over Israel, from the northern Galilee mountains to the northern Negev.

Not everyone in the country is happy about that. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), for example, adamantly opposes further planting of trees in naturally unforested open spaces such as grasslands and shrublandsIn a 2019 report, the SPNI claims that afforestation in sensitive ecosystems has a destructive impact on Israel's unique biodiversity.

"I love trees," says Alon Rothschild, head of biodiversity policy at the SPNI, "but you don't have to stick them in every place."

David Lerner, a Ph.D. candidate at Weizmann's Tree Lab, heads for acacia trees in the Arava Desert, Israel. In a three-year study, researchers tracked 10 acacia trees from two species that grow in the Arava to determine if the trees actually grow or only survive and remain the same size.
Photograph by Danielle Amy, National Geographic
Seeds hang from an acacia tree.
Photograph by Danielle Amy, National Geographic
Lerner by a planted acacia tree in the Negev Desert. The Negev is the oldest undisturbed surface on Earth, exposed to the elements for about 1.8 million years. It covers more than half of Israel. Vegetation in the Negev is sparse, but acacias thrive there.
Photograph by Danielle Amy, National Geographic

Planting trees in cities or villages, where they offer shade and cooling moisture, or in abandoned quarries and farmland, is a great idea, he says. Natural forests in the northern Carmel range and elsewhere should be preserved. "But the majority of the area in Israel is not naturally forest," Rothschild says, and those shrubby landscapes should be preserved too.

Planting forests in such places excludes native species that are adapted to shrubland, he says, including endangered ground-nesting birds like the spectacled warbler, or raptors such as the lesser kestrel and long-legged buzzard, which need open landscapes to dive on prey. The heavy machinery and herbicide used in tree-planting can also damage fragile dryland soils, crushing the thin crust. It consists of minute plants, lichens, and fungi that provide food for insects, reptiles, and birds.

There is also a human cost to the JNF's vision of making the desert bloom. In 2015, Israel's Supreme Court authorised the eviction of 1,000 Arab Bedouin residents of two Negev villages, Atir and Umm al-Hiran, in order to build the new town of Hiran—and also, according to Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, to expand the Yatir Forest.

Sheep graze in Yatir Forest, part of a program that lets herds graze in order to reduce fires.
Photograph by Danielle Amy, National Geographic
Rafat Qubaja, a postdoctoral fellow at the Weizmann institute, in Wadi al-Qaf, the largest nature reserve and protected forest in the West Bank. Qubaja tracks how much carbon trees store. Born and raised in the nearby village of Tarqumiya, part of the forest land is owned by his family, which tries to maintain and protect the forest from litter. The first Palestinian scientist to work at the institute has opened the doors to other Palestinian scholars.
Photograph by Danielle Amy, National Geographic
Equipment placed on branches of a pine tree in the Yatir Forest monitors the foliage on the tree and in the canopy.
Photograph by Danielle Amy, National Geographic

Since Israel’s founding in 1948, says Adalah lawyer Myssana Morany, forest projects have often served as a pretext to confiscate Palestinian land. The ruins of Palestinian villages lie under many Israeli forests or parks.

By continuing afforestation in the Negev, "the State is claiming that they know best what the right connection should be between the community and nature," says Morany. Bedouin communities grazing their flocks, she says, "know more than anyone how to be in coexistence with nature.” The real danger to it comes from building new cities and roads in the area, not from “the Bedouin community who are taking their goats around the forest."

What is natural, anyway?

Figuring out what “nature” even means in this ancient land, heavily exploited by humans for millennia, isn’t easy. When Jewish immigrants settled in Palestine more than a century ago, the land "was under amazing high levels of grazing and it was undergoing abnormal desertification," says plant biologist Tamir Klein, who directs the Weizmann Institute Tree Lab. Domestic animals like goats and sheep "are the murderers of plants,” he says. “They suck everything, and they leave no place untouched. They just eat all the herbs and all the seedlings."

Klein agrees with Rothschild in part: “We should not plant trees everywhere. There should be room for native shrublands and for grasslands, and we have them in Israel." But he supports some of the JNF’s afforestation efforts, including Yatir—which he says is in trouble.

Ecologist Anat Eidelman examines an infected pine tree with a magnifying glass in the research station of Yatir Forest.
Photograph by Danielle Amy, National Geographic
A magnifying glass reveals insect eggs on an infected pine.
Photograph by Danielle Amy, National Geographic

Aleppo pines are hardy but also short-lived; their average lifespan is 80 years. Twenty to 30 years from now, the original pines will be dead or dying, and there is very little regeneration of the forest, Klein says. That’s in part because of grazing, but primarily because drought is killing nearly all the pine seedlings.

Yatir "has been successful ever since it was planted in the 1960s," Klein says. "But it seems that it won't be as successful in years to come, because of climate change."

Yet Israel does have "an amazing diversity of plants," Klein says, including 70 native species of trees such as olive and oak. So when the JNF asked him to help design the future of Yatir Forest, Klein suggested that it should consider planting other trees: Salt-tolerant tamarisk, Ziziphus spina-christi (Christ's Thorn Jujube), and especially acacia.

Acacia trees, says Klein, can tolerate three extremes: aridity, high solar radiation, and high temperatures. In a recent study, his team found that acacia trees in Israel's dry Arava valley (which receives less than three inches of rain per year) actually grow fastest during the dry summer months, when maximum daily temperatures can reach as high as 45°C (113°F). One of their secrets seems to be exceedingly long roots, which can extend more than 30 feet down to underground aquifers, and 25 feet horizontally.

"Under future drying and warming scenarios," Klein and his co-authors note, sparse woodlands consisting of deep-rooted acacia "might survive climate change better than dense forests."

David Lerner seeks soil for his common garden research. A rainy winter season resulted in a lush bloom.
Photograph by Danielle Amy, National Geographic

Rotenberg is also optimistic that Yatir will persist in some form. On the journey from the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot south to Yatir, passing through the hills overlooking the Valley of Elah—“the valley of the terebinth,” where David is said to have fought Goliath—he points out terebinth trees but also Judas trees, oaks, and two kinds of cypress. In the absence of grazing by goats or sheep, he insists, trees regenerate naturally even in semi-arid regions. "If you look at every place that is abandoned, the forest will take over," he says.

At Yatir, he says, "we are all the time surprised by the ability of trees to survive." Even during an extreme drought from 2008 to 2009, when the forest endured 349 straight days without rain, most trees persevered.

"I'm sure that if no one touches the forest in 100 years, when you come to visit here, you'll see some pine trees standing," Rotenberg says. "The forest won't give up very easily."

Danielle Amy is a visual storyteller based between Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Brooklyn, NY. This story is part of a larger project she has been working on about afforestation and its various impacts in Israel and Palestine.


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