NATURE AND DESERTIFICATION
In juxtaposition to its small land area-about 21,000 square kilometers- Israel is characterized by a wide range of physical conditions and by a rich variety of flora and fauna. Recognition of the need to protect Israel’s precious natural and landscape resources led to the enactment of the National Parks and Nature Reserves Law in 1963. Pursuant to the law, two national authorities were created: the Nature Reserves Authority and the National Parks Authority.
In 1994, there were 197 declared nature reserves in Israel spanning an area of 348,564 hectares. Another 214 are now in various stages toward declaration. The total area of the reserves once all sites are declared will reach over 550,000 hectares. Outside the confines of nature reserves, hundreds of plant and animal species and minerals have been declared protected natural assets.
While nature reserves are predominantly concerned with the conservation of nature in its pristine state, national parks are concerned with the development of open spaces for recreational purposes. The National Parks Authority operates 40 national parks throughout the country catering to over 7 million visitors annually. In its early years, special emphasis was placed on the development of archeological sites. Today, increasing emphasis is being placed on the preservation of open spaces, especially near densely populated urban areas in the center of the country.
A National Outline Scheme for Afforestation was approved in principle in 1993. It designates 160,000 hectares for the development and conservation of forest lands in Israel. The plan is being implemented by the Jewish National Fund. By the end of 1993, the JNF had planted 200 million trees in an area of 81,000 hectares. Every year, about 2000 more hectares are planted all over the country.
Some 50% of all the JNF’s plantings are carried out in the Negev. In the northern fringes of the Negev, at the edge of the desert, Israel’s largest man-planted forests (Lahav and Yatir Forests) serve as popular recreation venues. Trees here grow on an average annual rainfall of 280 mm. Further south, the JNF has been planting widely-spaced trees and natural grasses aimed at upgrading the quality and value of the soil and terrain. Their growth relies on advanced water harvesting techniques.
The JNF’s newest program for planning single trees or clusters of trees in areas where climatic condifions do not permit woodlands or shrubs to grow without substantial human intervention is known as savannization. Entire watersheds are managed as whole units encompassing runoff- contributing areas and runoff-collecting patches. Three savannization sites have been set up in the Negev along a precipitation gradient of 300-100 mm annual rainfall.
The high priority accorded by Israel to combating desertification has led to the establishment, in January 1994, of the Center for Desert Research and Restoration Ecology in Sde Boker, a joint project of the JNF and Ben-Gurion University’s Desert Research Institute. The center should serve as a focal point for international cooperation on research related to the development, conservation and management of and lands. Israel is an active partner in current efforts to promote regional and international cooperation in combating desertification, both within the framework of the multilateral peace talks on the environment and in the drafting of an International Convention to Combat Desertification. In recognition of Israel’s experience, the first workshop of the International Arid Lands Consortium was convened in Israel in June 1994.