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Outside » Natural World

Trees of God, Folly of Man: A Bend forester’s mission to rebuild Lebanon’s legendary cedars

Before Man the Destroyer—that invincible user of all Nature's vast inventory—discovered what is today Lebanon, primal forests cloaked the highlands and plains, and throughout that magnificent forest were the Cedars of God.

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Those who know their Bible know the Cedars of Lebanon, also called the Cedars of God. The trees appear everywhere from Numbers, to First Kings, to Job, to Psalms, to Isaiah and Ezekiel, and Amos to Zechariah—yet they have almost vanished from the Earth. Before Man the Destroyer—that invincible user of all Nature's vast inventory—discovered what is today Lebanon, primal forests cloaked the highlands and plains, and throughout that magnificent forest were the Cedars of God.

Lebanon cedar became integral to various ancient civilizations that discovered its many uses. Canaanites used it for home construction; Phoenicians employed it for building commercial and military ships, as well as houses, palaces, and temples. Ancient Egyptians used its resin in mummification. Cedar sawdust has been found in the tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs. The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh designates the cedar groves of Lebanon as the dwelling place of the gods.

Today, the cedars are in big trouble because of the plundering of these magnificent trees that began in the 14th century B.C. The July War of 2006 destroyed thousands of remaining trees; others have been turned into charcoal and used for cooking and heating. Consequently, only about 13 percent of the original forest grows on the limestone hills of Lebanon today.

Now that Lebanon has, at last, achieved some degree of political stability—with their native cedar featured on the red and white national flag—there is time to mend the landscape and bring some kind of biodiversity back to the land. One of the leaders in this work is a private forester living in Bend, Darin Stringer.

As a graduate of OSU's forestry school, Stringer has an extensive background in forestry and has created and directed a wide range of restoration projects. Based on that experience, he was hired by the U.S. Forest Service International Programs as an advisor to the Lebanon Reforestation Initiative (LRI).

"When I saw the first site to be planted—a recently cleared mine field with not a tree for miles—just a sea of rocks among the Mediterranean baked soil, I thought, ‘this just won't work!’” Stringer said.

"But I was invigorated," he said, "on the drive back to Beirut, to see a government sponsored reforestation project from the 1960s that had taken root and a young forest of pine trees 30-feet tall that were thriving!”

"Getting trees to grow in these severely degraded lands is a major challenge, compared to planting in Oregon, but the Lebanese are so passionate in their desire to reclaim their forests. It's gotta' work," he said.

Stringer is using new techniques he developed in Western U.S. forests and integrating them with traditional methods and tools used in Lebanon.

Among others, Stringer is working with Majd Khashan, a Lebanese engineer-turned-forester who is training community leaders and farmers to plant and manage new forests. Majd (pronounced, "maj-id") is also helping to develop a network of small tree nurseries that will provide a supply of acclimated young cedars and other native trees for communities throughout Lebanon. He’s also been tasked with the ambitious goals of mapping vegetation throughout the country, developing native tree nurseries and reforesting barren areas, all under the direction of University of Idaho Professor Anthony Davis.

Darin and Majd recently toured several Northwest forests, from Montana to Northern California, noting the USA's methods of fire and forest management systems that could be applied to the Lebanon project.

"One of the objectives of our work," Darin says, "is to create seedlings at the nursery with a larger root system to help them survive the dry period that begins in March and ends with the coming of rain and snow in November. Our ultimate goal is to replant 300,000 trees," Darin added, looking to Majd, who gave him a thumbs-up and big grin.

It’s a tall order. Lebanon soils are nothing like those of the Northwest. Except in rare areas of intense dryness and cold, we have a good organic base, while Lebanon is all limestone, hammered by grazing goats and other uses over the years.

"It's now unlawful for anyone to range goats or even cut trees on the land without very strict permission from the Ministry," Majd explained.

In times past, Lebanon enjoyed lush, diverse forests made up of some 30 species of pine, several oaks, maple, juniper, pecan, almond, apple, peach and pistachio trees. But past political upheavals and warfare have left little of that beauty behind on the now hard-scrabble limestone.

"We have to use picks to break open the rocky surface," Majd said, "to create a bowl in which to plant new trees, so they will have water during the long dry period."

The Holy Valley (Ouadi Qadisha) and the Forest of the Cedars of God (Horsh Arz el-Rab) are now recognized as  UNESCO World Heritage Sites and, therefore, fall under the protection of the United Nations. That’s made it possible for the United States and the international community to bolster the efforts of the Lebanese people to restore the cedars.

"This project has a message of hope and caution. The hope is of communities and a nation rediscovering the nexus of economy and ecology and rebuilding the forest against great odds. The caution is to societies with productive forest lands: it’s far easier to be a steward for an existing forest than to try to bring it back after its been heavily exploited," Stringer said.

Photo taken by Darin Stringer.

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