Ancient Israeli Trees Threatened by New Building Rules

Cabinet approves plans to allow developers get easier approval without consulting forestry officer.

In recent years, the importance of conserving very old trees has gained greater appreciation in Israel and the law was changed to better protect them. A plan approved by the cabinet this week to streamline construction planning procedures, however, reduces the protection afforded to old-growth trees.

The cabinet decision scraps the requirement that in all cases developers must consult with a forestry officer before building plans can be approved. Instead, the interior minister, in consultation with the agriculture minister, is to be empowered to develop rules that would determine which types of projects would require the involvement of the forestry official.

Interior Ministry officials say prior versions of the planning law would have scrapped the need to consult on the fate of trees on construction sites altogether, but the ministry rejected that approach.

Ministry sources did say, however, that the involvement of the forestry officer in the approval process should be limited to situations in which there is genuine concern about damage to trees. Coordination with the Agriculture Ministry, which has authority over forestry officers, will help ensure that appropriate decisions are taken to protect old-growth trees, Interior Ministry sources said.

In addition to working for the Agriculture Ministry, forestry officers are currently employed on behalf of the Jewish National Fund and by several large cities. They operate according to standing forestry regulations. Ultimately any new procedure will still require their approval to chop down trees.

The concern is that currently they are consulted in advance of approval of building plans. If in the future the approval is only required at a later stage, the fear is that the officers will be under pressure not to stand in the way of the completion of construction projects that have already gotten permission to proceed.

The Israeli Forum for Responsible Planning, which includes environmental and social welfare organizations, has been critical of the new approach, calling it inappropriate.

"Mature trees are highly important, particularly in dense urban communities," the group said in a position paper. "To protect them, the requirement for consultation with the forestry officer should be left in place as he is the professional party with knowledge on the subject. Similar to required approval by other professionals, he should have to sign off on his opinion at the [appropriate] time. It would also be proper to add a comparable provision to the law requiring consultation with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority with respect to plans involving protected nature."

In some other countries, the requirement to consult with tree experts is actually being expanded. And on the municipal level in Israel, a member of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa city council, Sharon Malki, has recently undertaken efforts to require a hearing on construction plans that might involve harm to trees in the city. She has proposed adoption of the approach adopted by Boston that provides procedures through which public hearings are held when landowners seek to cut down trees.