Israel Environment Bulletin Spring 1997-5757, Vol. 20, No. 2

ERETZ HAMAKHTESHIM: NATURE CONSERVATION AND DESERT TOURISM

On the bedrock of the Central Negev hills, desert erosion has created sharp, angular crater-like features which are unique to Israel and the Eastern Sinai deserts"makhteshim". The Hebrew word "makhtesh"

(translated as "mortar") has been incorporated into international geological terminology to describe these magnificent geological phenomena.

Scientifically defined as valleys eroded by rivers into an anticline and surrounded by steep walls of hard rocks (limestone and dolomite) at the top and friable rocks (sandstone) at the bottom, Israel’s "makhteshim" must be seen to be appreciated. These eroded valleys present a magnificent panorama and an exceptional view into geomorphologic evolution and are replete with unique geological phenomena, a wealth of minerals and a singular ecological system. The Central Negev Desert boasts five "makhteshim" of different sizes, each representing a different stage of development: "HaMakhtesh HaKatan" (The Small Crater) which lies on the Hazera Ridge, "HaMakhtesh HaGadol" (Large Crater) on the Hatira Ridge, the giant "Makhtesh Ramon" (Ramon Crater) on the Ramon Ridge and the two embryonic "Arif Makhteshim" (Arif Craters).

The presence of rich mineral deposits side by side with the other unique features in the "makhteshim" has resulted in uncontrolled exploitation of the minerals and consequent damage to this globally-unique ecosystem. Recognition of the conflict between mining and quarrying, on the one hand, and nature conservation and desert tourism, on the other hand, was reflected in a joint proposal by the Ministries of Tourism and the Environment to protect "Eretz HaMakhteshim." On July 3, 1994, in cabinet decision #3497, the Israel government adopted their proposal and decided to protect "Eretz HaMakhteshim" from arbitrary quarrying and mining and to develop it for nature conservation and desert tourism.

In order to implement the decision and to review the economic, commercial, employment, tourism and environmental aspects of the plan, an interdisciplinary directors general committee was set up with representatives of the following ministries: Tourism, Environment, Finance, Energy and Infrastructure, Agriculture, Interior and Industry and Trade. The committee’s recommendations were endorsed by the government in March 1996 thus paving the way for planning and implementation. In line with the recommendations, the Negev Tourism Development Administration was commissioned to draft guidelines for changing current land uses in the "makhteshim" to nature reserves which will be sustainably developed for desert tourism. The proposed ecological guidelines, which were prepared by Dr. Shoshana Ashkenazi, were approved by the directors general of the Ministries of Tourism and Environment in March 1997. They will serve as a basis for the preparation of a statutory plan for the region. It is significant to note that in this case, in contrast to most other national and regional plans, an ecological plan preceded the drafting of a statutory plan.

Quarries and Mines Versus Conservation and Tourism

The recently published document entitled "Eretz HaMakhteshim Ecological Guidelines for the Regularization of Mining Activities and for Changes in Land Use to Nature Conservation and Desert Tourism" is based on a thorough review of several subjects, foremost of which are the following:

– Active quarries in "Eretz HaMakhteshim" and their statutory state; – Abandoned quarries in "Eretz HaMakhteshim";
– Unique natural, landscape and archeological values in "Eretz HaMakhteshim";
– Conceptual and statutory plans for nature reserves, development and tourism in the area.

The results of these surveys and reviews were used as the basis for recommendations on changing land use designations and for a preliminary program for reclaiming abandoned quarries. The Geographical Information System (GIS) unit of the Ministry of the Environment’s Planning Department, under the direction of Mr. Yari Ginott, played an essential role in every step of the review process. On the basis of a wide range of maps, (e.g., national master plans, surveys of rivers, roads, settlements, firing ranges, and concession areas for phosphate quarrying, regional master plans and individual points of special value), data were processed, integrated and analyzed.

The surveys and reviews highlighted the fact that unregulated prospecting, mining and quarrying are rampant in Makhtesh Ramon and HaMakhtesh HaGadol. Some 50 active quarries and nearly 100 abandoned quarries and prospect sites currently dot the area, resulting in such adverse environmental impacts as destruction of habitats, landscape and aesthetic blight, blockage or diversion of streambeds, dust pollution, and contamination of groundwater, springs and riverbed, as well as a host of nuisances ranging from litter to noise.

These problems have been accentuated in recent years as a result of the growing demand for desert tourism both worldwide and in Israel. Growing demands for recreation and nature hikes coupled with growing awareness of the attractions of desert tourism in neighboring countries, have contributed to the emergence of the Negev as a "legitimate" site for desert tourism. However as demand for desert tourism has grown, so has the conflict between the need to exploit the region’s minerals for industrial purposes and the need to preserve these precious natural landscapes and assets for the benefit of present and future generations. Indeed, the very initiative for the "Eretz HaMakhteshim" proposal resulted from the growing perception that quarrying and mining must be reduced to a minimum in order to promote nature conservation and tourism in the area.

Ecological Guidelines for Land Use Changes

If the ecological value of an area is determined by the condition of its natural habitats, its rarity, level of preservation and species diversity as well as the existence of unique sites and phenomena, then "Eretz HaMakhteshim" ranks most high on an international conservation scale. Indeed, recent surveys have discovered over 800 unique sites in this region alone, ranging from archaeological remains to ancient routes to fossilized plants and unique associations of plants and animals. The steep walls of the "makhteshim" have isolated the life forms within by forming impenetrable barriers. In Makhtesh Ramon alone, the most intensively studied "makhtesh", several endemic species were discovered including, among others, two species of plants, a small mammal, and a reptile. Other animals which roam the area include ibex, gazelles, wolves, foxes and birds of preyand even Asiatic wild ass which have been gradually released to the Makhtesh Ramon area over the past decade and a half as part of an ambitious reintroduction program run by the Nature Reserves Authority aimed at reintroducing populations of animals which were present in this region in historic times but have disappeared from modern Israel. In addition, the area boasts remnants of ancient man from the Canaanite, Judean Kingdom, Nabatean and Byzantine periods.

The land use recommendations which are presented in the ecological guidelines for planning "Eretz HaMakhteshim" reflect these findings. They call for preserving HaMakhtesh HaGadol and Makhtesh Ramon as nature reserves, for increasing the size of the protected areas in these "makhteshim" and for preserving each as a complete and separate unit in recognition of its unique elements whether plants, rodents, reptiles or others. The international importance of these special formations, each with its own unique characteristics, geological structure, lithological composition and population of flora and fauna clearly requires their protection as ecosystems which are as complete as possible.

In accordance with this approach, some of the areas designated for mining and quarrying will be added to areas designated for conservation as nature reserves. This specifically relates to HaMakhtesh HaGadol and the central part of Makhtesh Ramon, both of which are used for mining and quarrying. In the case of Makhtesh Ramon, plant and animal populations in the eastern and western sections are currently fragmented by mining and quarrying in the center, a fact which risks their long-term survival. Connecting these two sections will create a larger ecosystem which will ensure the continued safety of this area’s unique and endemic species.

Additional recommendations call for the conservation of a section outside the walls of the "makhteshim" as protection to several endangered raptors which nest in the adjacent cliffs. Still another recommendation calls for preserving the region of the ancient caravan routes which connect the two "makhteshim"most notably the "Spice Routes."

Nature Conservation and Ecotourism

Implementation of these and other recommendations should see "Eretz HaMakhteshim" developed as an area of desert tourism in accordance with sustainable development practices which will benefit hikers and tourists while preventing damage to precious natural and landscape values. According to this tourism conception, nature conservation will rank highest. Tourism services (e.g., sleeping accommodations, food and attractions) will be concentrated in existing settlements along the main roads, while the center of the region will remain undeveloped with the exception of information and exhibition centers which will be situated in reclaimed quarries along roadsides. From a statutory viewpoint, the recommendations will see the transformation of the areas into nature reserves in which sustainable desert tourism will be permitted.

These changes in land use designation are justified on two counts: the existence of alternatives for some of the mined minerals outside of the "makhteshim", on the one hand, and the global significance of preserving this unique ecosystem and the singular species inhabiting it, on the other hand.

A glimpse of the kind of desert tourism which is being advocated for "Eretz HaMakhteshim" may already be seen in the existing Makhtesh Ramon Nature Reserve. Forty kilometers in length, nine kilometers in width and 400 meters in depth, Makhtesh Ramon affords the visitor a rare and unforgettable opportunity to become acquainted with the diversified geological phenomenon concentrated here. The adjacent visitor center at Mitzpe Ramon, coupled with the wide availability of hiking and jeep tours, further expose the visitor to the fascinating geography of the surrounding areathe wide, open desert, its scenic canyons and creeks cleaved out of rocks, and the unique animal and vegetation associations, some of which are endemic to the area. Both Makhtesh Ramon and HaMakhtesh HaGadol are intensively investigated by the Ramon Science Center and the Institute for Desert Research in Sede Boqer, a world leader in desert research.

The sustainable development of "Eretz HaMakhteshim" for nature conservation and desert tourism will be supported by the Ministry of Tourism. Hopefully, it will ensure that the unique natural treasures of the "makhteshim" will be preserved and enjoyed by Israelis and tourists alike for generations to come.

Acknowledgment: Special thanks to Dr. Shoshana Ashkenazi and Mr. Yari Ginott for their help in preparing this paper.