Outcropping of Sternbergia wildflower in Mount Meron nature preserve.
Outcropping of Sternbergia wildflower in Mount Meron nature preserve. Photo by Yaron Kaminsky
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Israel's public campaign to prevent picking of wildflowers has long been considered one of the country's greatest environmental victories, and was even named as the best publicity campaign in Israeli history by the advertising industry's trade organization.

A study of the campaign recently concluded that the it generated a profound cultural change, which obviously raises the question: Could other environmental campaigns cause similar long-lasting cultural and social changes? The study, published in the latest issue of University of Haifa's Horizons in Geography, was conducted by Benny Furst, an environmental planner, as part of his doctoral dissertation on environmental struggles.

Furst studied the actions taken by environmental organizations to protect wildflowers during the 1960s, interviewing activists such as Dr. Uzi Paz and Azaria Alon, then the heads, respectively, of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

Wildflower picking in those days was officially frowned upon, yet socially acceptable and seen as an expression of love for the land of Israel. It also became a source of income after certain types of flowers began being picked for sale, which was the main reason for the dwindling numbers of wildflowers. The first step in stopping this practice was passage of the National Parks and Nature Preserves Law in 1964. The law prohibited damage to protected natural resources, including a list of wildflowers. Upon the law's passage, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority was established to enforce the protection of these natural resources.

However, legislation and enforcement by the parks authority's inspectors were not enough to stop the widespread pastime of going out to pick wildflowers. So the parks authority and SPNI started a campaign with posters, radio programs and school activities. At the same time, enforcement was modulated: People caught red-handed were first issued warnings and asked not to pick wildflowers again.

The inspiration to use colorfully illustrated posters of wildflowers came from the Haifa Municipality. Furst notes that the city was home to a subculture of nature lovers, and they persuaded Mayor Abba Khoushy to approve a municipal bylaw to protect the wildflowers on Mount Carmel. The municipality produced the first posters urging the protection of wildflowers.

The commercial sector also played a role. Blue Band Ltd. and Dagon Silos, owned by Reuven Hecht, financed two posters that addressed the public in the name of the wildflowers: "Please don't pick us!" These were the inspiration for posters used by the SPNI and parks authority. In a few years the extensive public relations campaign resulted in a steep decline in wildflower picking. In recent years, though, there has been some backsliding. According to an SPNI survey five years ago, many respondents reported having seen people picking protected wildflowers.

Furst says the campaign succeeded in changing a deeply ingrained social habit because major organizations made it an issue of ethics and civic-mindedness, while the educational efforts appealed to both the heart and mind. "For the first time, an ethical code came into being that redefined, in a way that differed from accepted norms, what Israelis' attitude to their natural environment should be," writes Furst. He notes that the erosion in public awareness on this issue is due to the absence of public relations and educational work to reinforce it.

Such campaigns can convince the Israeli public to change its environmental ways; this has been shown not only with the wildflowers effort, but also the water conservation campaign, which yielded impressive results by stressing the need to preserve a national and ecological asset such as the Sea of Galilee.

Furst says environmental organizations now rely less on inducing behavior change in the public and more on using legal tools, strict enforcement and intimidating rhetoric. However, the setting for environmental battles is different than it was for the wildflowers campaign 40 years ago - back then it was easy to turn areas that were in any case meant to be national parks and preserves into a worthy cause and persuade the public to go along.

Today it is much harder to protect open spaces in locations that aren't preserves or national parks. Many Israelis think a high quality of life requires a house in a rural setting, so there's nothing wrong with build cottages and villages in these open spaces.

Israeli consumers now face many more temptations than they did in the past, such as all-terrain vehicles (ATVs ) for driving on the beach, despite the legal ban and the parks authority's attempts to get the word out. Some of these temptations are very difficult to resist. The 130 drivers cited by parks authority inspectors for illegally driving on the beach last weekend can testify to that.

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