NATURE AND DESERTIFICATION

In juxtaposition to its small land area, Israel is characterized by a wide range of physical conditions and by a rich variety of flora and fauna. Therefore, it is not surprising that the nature conservation movement preceded organized environmental activity by decades.

The roots of Israel’s nature protection movement are traced back to the organization of a small group of nature lovers and scientists around a specific issue: the draining of Lake Hula and its surrounding swamps. This small but dedicated group of conservationists, who fought for the preservation of a small area of swampland as a nature reserve, formed the nucleus of what was to become Israel’s oldest and most powerful non-governmental conservation body the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI). The SPNI along with other bodies, such as the Nature Reserves Authority, National Parks Authority, Jewish National Fund and Ministry of the Environment, have been responsible for a wide-ranging and successful program of nature conservation in Israel. As a result of their efforts, about one-quarter of the land area of the country has been set aside for protection, at various levels, within the context of national and district masterplans.

Nature Protection in Israel

The small land area of the country, the diversity and wealth of its natural, landscape and heritage values, and its location in a semi- arid region combine to make Israel’s landscapes unique, sensitive and especially vulnerable.

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. The law, which was updated in 1992, provides the legal structure for the protection of natural habitats, natural assets, wildlife and sites of scientific and educational interest in Israel. Pursuant to this law, two authorities were created: the Nature Reserves Authority

(NRA) and the National Parks Authority (NPA).

Passage of the nature protection legislation in 1963 spurred the preparation of a national masterplan for the preservation of sites which are of special natural, landscape and historic value. The National Outline Scheme for National Parks, Nature Reserves and Landscape Reserves was approved by the Israel Cabinet in 1981.

Protection of Natural Assets

The Nature Reserves Authority (NRA) was established in 1964, pursuant to the National Parks and Nature Reserves Law. The NRA preserves and cultivates nature reserves and natural assets, protects wildlife, safeguards the quality of the environment in open areas, protects the beauty, diversity and integrity of Israel’s landscapes and open areas, and provides visitor services in the reserves.

In a small country, with a high rate of industrialization and urbanization, nature reserves help secure the biodiversity of the natural environment. A nature reserve is an area with characteristic and unusual fauna, flora or minerals which need to be protected against destruction or change in appearance or composition. Israel’s reserves vary in size, character and use. Some encompass less than one square kilometer while others span thousands of hectares; most are open to the public while some offer special visitor services. Together, they represent the entire spectrum of Israel’s natural heritage, including Mediterranean forests, seaside landscapes, sand dunes, water landscapes, desert and crater landscapes, and oases.

The NRA fulfills its nature protection goals through various departments and with the aid of regional rangers and managers. It has developed a computerized database on protected natural assets, sites, species, endemic plants and fungi. NRA scientists study different habitats in nature reserves, explore the relationships between flora and fauna and their environment, collect data on plant and animal behavior and examine potentially harmful influences. Their findings are used to determine how to best preserve, cultivate and rehabilitate the natural assets found in nature reserves.

A lengthy process is necessary before an area can be declared a nature reserve. It begins with identification based on observations and in-depth surveys and studies, continues with deliberations by government offices and planning authorities, and ends with declaration by the Minister of the Interior. In 1994, there were 197 declared nature reserves in Israel spanning an area of 348,564 hectares. With the proclamation of another 214, now in various stages toward declaration, the total area of the reserves will reach 552,956 hectares.

The NRA has developed both local and regional visitor centers for the comfort and enjoyment of travelers. The visitor centers provide detailed information on the landscape, history, geology, archeology, botany, zoology and anthropology of a given area by means of creative displays, maps and pamphlets. Local visitor centers are established in particularly interesting reserves, such as the Eilat Coral Reserve and the Hula Reserve. Regional visitor centers serve a larger geographical area. The center at Yotvata is the gateway to Eilat and its environs; the center at Arad provides information about the Judean Desert; the center at Mitzpe Ramon introduces the visitor to the Ramon Crater and the Negev mountain range.

Outside the confines of nature reserves, hundreds of plants and animal species, including ferns, wildflowers, shrubs, trees and fish, as well as minerals (rock formations), have been declared "protected natural assets." The NRA, along with other national agencies, works to protect these natural assets wherever they may be. Animals such as the leopard, gazelle, ibex and vulture have been declared protected species, and special rescue operations, including establishment of feeding stations and nesting sites, have been initiated to protect endangered species. At two special wildlife reserves the Hai Bar biblical reserves in the Aravah and on Mount Carmel an experimental project to reintroduce animal species, which once roamed the hills and deserts of the Land of Israel, into their former natural habitats, has been initiated. Species now being bred, and slated to be set free at a future date, include ostriches, Persian fallow deer, oryxes, Somali wild asses and onagers. Recently, a modern breeding center for predators such as foxes, wolves, hyenas and wild cats was added.

In the center of the country, the biblical landscape reserve of Neot Kedumim has established gardens with flora native to various geographical areas of the Land of Israel in ancient times. Neot Kedumim, in the Ben-Shemen forest area of the Modi’in region, serves as a living museum of the "green archeology" of biblical Israel.

Botanical gardens have been established by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and by Tel Aviv University. A germplasm bank with germplasm of wild wheat, barley and oats is operated by Tel Aviv University while the Israel Gene Bank for Agricultural Crops is run by the Agricultural Research Organization.

The Carmel Park and Nature Reserve

While none of Israel’s reserves is large enough to preserve entire ecological systems which encompass a variety of habitats, an exciting initiative is currently underway which may pave the way toward the declaration of the Carmel National Park and Nature Reserve as a biosphere reserve. Monitoring and research activities are being implemented by the NRA, within the framework of a three- year agreement between Germany and Israel.

The devastating fire that hit the heart of the Carmel National Park in September 1989 initiated a rethinking process on major long- range planning issues regarding the management of the park. A specially-appointed expert committee, chaired by the Chief Scientist of the Ministry of the Environment, studied issues regarding the development and restoration of the park. During the course of workshops and deliberations, the concept of a biosphere reserve was first raised, and an attempt was made to introduce long-range planning considerations related to climate change and the sensitivity of Mediterranean ecosystems to desiccation.

A biosphere reserve is defined as an area in which nature conservation and development are managed sustainably in cooperation with users of the area. This is achieved by dividing the reserve into several zones: a core, with strict conservation regulations; a buffer where active conservation management practices, outdoor leisure, educational activities and scientific research take place; and a transition zone where the infrastructures for tourism, education and scientific research are located and where the human population is concentrated.

The proposed size of the Mount Carmel Biosphere Reserve is envisioned as nearly 50,000 hectares encompassing the mountainous area of the Carmel, the coastal plain and the sea shore. The major objectives of the proposed reserve include:

* Conservation of natural biological resources;
* Provision of channels for environmentally-compatible sustainable development;
* Use as a living, outdoor laboratory in reconstruction ecology;
* Development of a model for a new global concept climatic transition zone biosphere reserve.

The characteristics of Mt. Carmel, an area clearly demarcated from its surroundings, create a unique and harmonious landscape, compatible with the aims of biosphere reserves. The area boasts geological and geomorphological diversity, contrasting landscapes, rich biodiversity, a mixture of agricultural practices, a wealth of prehistoric, historic and archeological sites and diverse human activities and settlements. Furthermore, Mt. Carmel is situated within a regional climatic and biotic transition zone: the Mediterranean scrub land extends to its north; the arid zone to its south. It is anticipated, therefore, that the proposed biosphere reserve will conserve the biota of transition zones, as part of an international concerted effort to manage the global biosphere by reducing the scope of adverse ecological impacts due to global warming.

National Parks

While nature reserves are predominantly concerned with the conservation of nature in its pristine state, national parks are mainly concerned with the development of open spaces for recreational purposes. Under the National Parks, Nature Reserves, Memorial Sites and National Sites Law, a national park is defined as an area of natural, scenic, historic, archeological or architectural value which is protected and developed for recreational purposes. The National Parks Authority (NPA), under the responsibility of the Ministry of the Environment, deals with the design, restoration, care and development of national parks.

The NPA was created in order to protect the country’s natural beauty from rapidly-encroaching urbanization and to restore and maintain antiquities that have been lost or neglected for centuries. The NPA, often in cooperation with local councils, now operates 43 national parks, criss-crossing the country and catering to over 7 million visitors every year. Three of the parks, situated in Jericho, were recently transferred to the Palestinian authorities within the framework of the peace process.

Masada, the fortress from where Jewish warriors defied the Legions of Rome, remains the most frequently visited national park. Others include Jewish sites such as the mosaic-tiled synagogues of Hamat Tiberias and Beit Alpha, Nabatean-Byzantine towns such as Avdat and Shivta, ancient towns such as Hazor and Megiddo, Crusader sites such as Caesarea where a Roman theater was excavated and reconstructed, and sites of high landscape value such as the Hurshat Tal woodland and the Carmel Park, spanning 8,400 hectares.

In its early years, the NPA placed special emphasis on the development of archeological sites (26 national parks are archeological sites). With the passing of time, however, increasing demands for recreation and a growing awareness of natural and historic values spurred the development of both recreational and historic 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. An NPA team is currently working on revising the masterplan for national parksproposing the expansion of existing parks, especially alongside rivers, and calling for the development of additional parks in the center of the country.

The National Council on National Parks and Nature Reserves, chaired by a representative of the Ministry of the Environment and including representatives of government ministries, local authorities, nature protection bodies and the public sector, guides the NRA and NPA in their respective spheres, recommends sites for protection and advises the National Planning and Building Board on changes to the national masterplan. In the face of accelerated population, development and industrial growth, the council is currently investing special efforts in the formulation of a policy on open space management. The council has already called for the declaration of a national park in the Sharon area, for the expansion of the Carmel Park, for the prevention of building and development in the immediate environs of coastal streams, and for the prevention of urban and industrial encroachment on sensitive sections of the coastal strip.

Protection of Open Space Landscape

While awareness of the need to protect natural and landscape resources has led to the emergence of a significant system of nature reserves and national parks, the small size of the country and the heavy pressures on its limited land resources have left few land reserves. As a result, protected areas are insufficient to preserve the nature values, the ecosystems and the unique landscape image of this highly diverse country.

In order to secure the biodiversity and the visual resources of the country, an interdisciplinary "think team," organized by the SPNI, has formulated a new approach to development in open space landscapes which have not been designated as protected. This new approach seeks to direct development, both in terms of siting and features, to appropriate areas in ways which will not destroy the ecosystem, the wildlife and the landscape features of each of the small but diverse landscape units in Israel.

To provide developers with the necessary conservation information, a methodology for conducting nature and landscape surveys and evaluations was developed. A preliminary classification of the entire open landscape of the country was carried out and recommendations were made for appropriate levels of protection/development for each landscape unit. Open spaces throughout the country were classified into four categories according to their value, importance, sensitivity and vulnerability: protected areas, open space landscape areas, controlled development areas, building and development areas.

Protected areas are areas of special importance and high sensitivity in relation to nature, landscape and historic values. Open space landscape areas are characterized by landscape sensitivity and are important for the protection of natural landscape diversity and features and for recreational needs. Controlled development areas are areas of intermediate natural and visual sensitivity which are partly appropriate for building and development as long as landscape protection is taken into account. Finally, building and development areas are of low landscape sensitivity and are appropriate for building and development.