This week Tel Aviv will stage the third annual international exhibition on environmental affairs, and the event will feature a wide array of Israeli innovations in this sphere. Organizers of the exhibition would do well to consider adding Israel's latest contribution to non-conservation conservation: we are now a country whose national conservation agency assists construction plans inside nature reserves.
The Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority made this original approach powerfully clear last week. A delegate from the authority attended a meeting of the national planning and building council, which reviewed a plan to establish a new community named Michal in the Gilboa region, in an area designated as a nature reserve. The Parks Protection Authority delegate explained how 300 dunams from the reserve can be used for the new community. His comments had considerable impact on the vote held after the discussion, in which the construction project was approved.
The Parks Protection Authority's position during this planning council meeting comes as part of a truly disturbing process by which the Authority is transmogrifying into an organization specializing in the rezoning of green spaces for other uses, in exchange for concessions from other bodies. It sacrifices one green space to gain another. But sometimes invaluable natural assets in the rezoned area can be lost forever.
In the case of the planned Michal community, the Parks Protection Authority agreed to the rezoning of space in the nature reserve in exchange for the Jordan Valley Council's agreeing to withdraw its opposition to the designation of a large amount of land in the Gilboa area as a nature reserve. Parks Protection Authority officials have worked out similar agreements in other areas.
Apart from the matter of principle raised by the surrender to dictates imposed by local councils, the concession regarding the Gilboa area has real significance in terms of ecology movements in Israel. It is liable to bring harm to irises flowering on the Gilboa, which are one of the most potent symbols of nature conservation in Israel.
Prior to the national planning council discussion, an iris specialist from the Hebrew University, Yuval Sapir, prepared a brief saying the type of irises on the Gilboa does not grow anywhere else in the world, and is in danger of extinction. Sapir pointed out that the new community will go up right where the irises grow, and he warned about damage that will be caused to the rare flower. Sapir has conducted iris surveys, and has charted maps of where they are to be found in the Gilboa region. In order to support Sapir's argument, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel - one of the leading opponents of the plan to build Michal - prepared a photographic presentation of irises growing precisely at the spot where the community is to be built.
Parks Protection Authority officials attempt to minimize the ecological impact of green spaces they concede. These facts underscore that they have forgotten what their jobs are supposed to be about, along with the value of conserving precious natural assets.
But how much is nature worth, when compared to the value of deals worked out by Parks Protection Authority officials? They made such deals in the past. However, under the supervision of Eli Amitai, the Authority's present director-general, the deal-making has become a systematic, ongoing pursuit, and expert conservationists within the Authority have been denied the right to appeal policies. And deal-making has stifled public debate about moves to redesignate green spaces.
The benefit gained when a particular regional council agrees to declare an area to be a nature reserve can never justify damage to natural resources in another area. Nor can national considerations regarding the strengthening of populations in the Gilboa region justify such damage to nature, especially when several planning experts who oppose the Michal plan have pointed out that there are areas in the Gilboa region that are zoned for residential building and where construction will not harm nature.
Amitai has made a major contribution to the Parks Protection Authority by reducing its heavy debts. However, his mandate is to conserve green spaces and protect nature in Israel. The danger inherent in the business method he uses is that it lowers the value of nature conservation. His tactic suggests that conservation should depend on the whims of regional council heads.
The Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority should proudly and persistently guard green spaces that have been zoned as nature reserves. It should agree to redesignation of these spaces only in exceptional cases, and only when it is clear that the land in question does not hold natural assets in danger of extinction.
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