“The JNF is the world’s leading authority in arid land forestry.” – United States Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth during his visit to Israel. (Photo: Mark Schulman)Planting trees is practically a national past time in Israel, especially during the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shvat – Jewish Arbor Day – when hundreds of thousands of school children, families, politicians and dignitaries alike make their way to forests and parks to plant trees and eat locally grown fruits and nuts.

United States Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth was no exception as he rolled up his sleeves with Israeli President Moshe Katsav to plant the first tree – an olive tree – of a newly dedicated forest in Jerusalem.

“I am truly honored to be here today to be part of this celebration of life,” said Bosworth, a trained forester who worked in the national forests of Montana, Utah and Idaho before becoming the head of the Forest Service in 2001. “Tu B’Shvat celebrates what we are as friends and partners – in defining a sustainable future for forests and managed wildlife environments.”

In recent years, the U.S. Forest Service has started a tradition of celebrating Tu B’Shvat in America, together with the Jewish National Fund (JNF), Israel’s lead agency for forest management and land development.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman participated in the first joint U.S. Forest Service-JNF Tu B’Shvat ceremony in the Angeles National Forest in California in 2000. Every year since then the Tonto National Forest in Arizona has co-sponsored a Tu B’Shvat ceremony with the JNF.

Similar climates shared between the U.S., particularly in the American Southwest, and Israel have led to an ongoing partnership between the U.S. Forest Service and the JNF in the areas of forest management, soil erosion and water conservation.

“Our relationship started some 17 years ago with sharing expertise on fighting forest fires, something the U.S. has a lot of experience with,” Bosworth told ISRAEL21c. “Since then it has developed into a much higher partnership.”

In 1990 the U.S. Forest Service and the JNF solidified that on-going relationship by signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to work together on forestry issues by sharing research information and conducting scientific exchanges. This sharing of information has resulted in technical assistance, and improved training and forestry education programs.

“It is very important for our foresters to have the most up-to-date information and training,” said JNF Chief Executive Officer Russell Robinson. “Our agreement with the U.S. Forest Service allows us to share information and learn new techniques from each other.”

Since 1987, more than 400 American and Israeli foresters have been part of the comprehensive technical exchange program.

“The JNF is the world’s leading authority in arid land forestry,” said Bosworth. “We face similar issues in natural resource management in the United States, and for that we could use JNF’s help.”

Over the years, the JNF has shared information on restoring semi-arid watersheds and techniques for re-establishing vegetation on overgrazed lands in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, as well as information on water and soil conservation technology for deserts in California and Texas. Likewise, the U.S. Forest Service has supported several projects in Israel, including a dryland afforestation research project in Yatir.

The Yatir pine forest, located in the northern Negev desert between the Israeli cities of Beersheva and Arad, was planted in a low rainfall region, initially considered by experts to be unsustainable. Today, it has become one of Israel’s largest woodlands.

“The forest is a good example of an afforestation project that has succeeded,” said Uriel Safriel, a professor of ecology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the former director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute
for Desert Studies at Ben-Gurion University, which has been involved in monitoring the forest.

“Yatir has achieved water and soil conservation,” Safriel added. “Results show that the forest has helped increase water infiltration, which in effect has reduced soil erosion and the generation of run-off and floods.”

Part of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Middle East Regional Cooperation Program (MERC) and the US Forest Service?s international technical assistance program, the Yatir project represents a collaborative research effort between Israel, Jordan, Palestinian Authority, Turkey, and the United States.

“I wanted to see first hand the kind of the things we [U.S. Forest Service] are involved in Israel, and to see where we can cooperate in the future,” Bosworth said during his first visit to Israel, which included visits to several JNF projects and research facilities, as well as various forests throughout the country.

Bosworth also made a special trip to the American Independence Park in the Judean hills outside of Jerusalem to dedicate a memorial in honor of US firefighters who have lost their lives in the line of duty. He also paid tribute in his Tu B’Shvat speech to the seven astronauts, including Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who were killed when the NASA space shuttle Columbia exploded on February 1, 2003.

In an interview from space during the Columbia mission, just days before Tu B’Shvat, Ramon urged Jews around the world to plant 13 million trees in Israel to mark the anniversary of the launching. Following the tragedy, the JNF erected a memorial plaque to the astronauts and planted 13 trees in the American Independence Park to symbolize the 13 million trees Ramon envisioned (A memorial to the astronauts who lost their lives in the 1986 Challenger disaster is located nearby). The U.S. Forest Service also responded by designating the Piney Woods in East Texas, an area where large pieces of space shuttle debris landed, as a living memorial to the Columbia astronauts.

The U.S. Forest Service was established in 1905 as an agency of the US Department of Agriculture, which today manages 77.3 million hectares (191 million acres) of public forests and grasslands. The government agency has also come to partner internationally on a wide range of natural resource management, policy and research issues, working in 59 countries around the world, including Israel.

In quoting Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Bosworth characterized the work of his agency at home and abroad as doing the “greatest good for the greatest number in the longest time.”

“JNF follows the same fundamental philosophy as we do,” he added. “Both organizations are stewards of the natural environment, stewards of the land.”

As a non-profit organization devoted to reforesting Israel, the JNF has since its inception in 1901 developed some 250,000 acres of land, built over 150 dams and reservoirs, created more than 450 parks, and planted more than 240 million trees throughout Israel. In fact, Israel is one of the only countries in the world to end the 20th century with more trees than it had at the beginning.

“The Forest Service and JNF are uniquely qualified to lead the world in addressing such problems as desertification, the spread of invasive species and the unsustainable land uses and management practices,” Bosworth said.

“That is why I am here in Israel to celebrate Tu B’Shvat. Tu B’Shvat is about valuing natural ecosystems and valuing life, not just today, but every day of the year.”