The Ministry of the Interior is delaying the process of declaring broad areas as nature reserves, thereby significantly restricting the ability to protect them, says the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

SPNI has appealed to the Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, asking him to intervene and speed up the process.

The planning administration at the Ministry has denied the allegations, saying that the declaration procedure is underway and is pending the approval of numerous bodies.

Over the last decade, the procedure of declaring sites as nature reserves and national parks was resumed at a swift pace, after a lengthy pause. Between 2008-2010, each year has seen areas comprising about 25,000 acres declared as reserves or parks. This means the area received final approval as a protected reserve, allowing the Nature and Parks Authority to take legal steps to protect it.

In the past year, though, the declaration process for new reserves and expansion of existing reserves has ground to a halt. According to the SPNI, there are 17 reserves awaiting declaration. Eleven already have all the necessary approvals, and the only thing lacking is the signature of the Interior Minister, Eli Yishai.

The total area of the reserves not declared this past year is about 25,000 acres. A large part of this area is in the reserves around the Katsav and Hayun rivers in the Negev desert, and in the Eilat Mountain range. There are additional, smaller areas in the center and north of the country. They are important due to the relative lack of protected sites in these regions. The sites include terrain at Tel Dan, the Yavniel River reserve in the Lower Galilee, the Dalia River area on the edges of Mount Carmel, and the sand hills of Gvar'am Kibbutz. Another case is the expansion of the Nazareth Iris reserve near Nazareth, an important site for the protection of one of Israel's most unique wildflower species.

The SPNI has asked the Parks and Reserves Council to act on this issue as well. The Council provides consultation as part of the Environmental Protection Ministry, and has expressed its concern about the delay in the declaration procedures.

Nature protection officials allege that one of the main reasons for the delay is the planning administrator's intention to remove limitations on various development programs (mostly of infrastructure), part of which are planned in nature reserve territories. This week, the director of the SPNI, "Kosha" Pakman, wrote to the Minister of the Interior asking him to remove the obstacles delaying the declaration of new reserves. "The delay in declaring these valuable and broad areas as reserves significantly restricts the ability of official institutions to protect them, placing them under the constant threat of development," wrote Pakman.

The planning administration at the Ministry of the Interior stated in response that "the process of approval and declaration of nature reserves is lengthy and involves receiving the approval of various entities, and performing comprehensive and in-depth examinations and consultations with bodies such as local councils, the Environment Protection Minister, and the ministries of education and defense. After the consultations are completed, planning inspections are sometimes required regarding specific parts of the program, including updated inspections with respect to zoning plans, on aspects such as planned and existing roads and planned and existing infrastructure."