Gazelle Valley - Amir Balaban / SPNI - July 2011
The SPNI has become increasingly involved in fighting urban sprawl, such as in the Gazelle Valley in Jerusalem. Photo by Amir Balaban / SPNI
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The Israel Nature and Parks Authority is not effectively protecting rare plants in Israel, most markedly in the northern Negev. One problem is that the nature reserves there are tiny and noncontiguous: They are dotted around the desert region.

Environmental organizations and scientists are now trying to promote new ideas to shield the area from development, even if the land is not slated for preservation under the law. The latest is a proposal by a group of botanists specializing in wild plants: The government should categorize areas featuring rare plants in danger of extinction as protected.

Some weeks ago, the Nature and Parks Authority published the second volume of its "Red Data Book: Endangered Plants of Israel," written by three botanists: Avi Shmida, Gadi Pollak and Ori Fragman-Sapir.

One of the scientists' most crucial conclusions is that less than half the endangered plant species along the coastal plain are actually found within nature reserves.

The coastal plain, they said, has the highest concentration of plants unique to Israel. Its preservation is therefore a matter of national importance if these plants are to survive.

But the coastal plain isn't the only area where rare plants exist only outside the nature reserves, and protecting their habitats against development is not a trivial problem.

Shmida, Pollak and Fragman-Sapir defined a number of "red areas" containing large concentrations of endangered plant species and argued that protecting these areas would be better than merely relying on nature reserves.

The list of "red areas" includes nature reserves such as Tel Dan in the north and Mount Meron, but also a host of spots along the coast, from the Acre region in the north to Zikim and Yad Mordechai in the south, that for the most part aren't in areas designated for nature preservation.

The Sharon region, including the Ilanot district and Nahal Poleg, is heavily dotted with such "red areas" - and these areas are earmarked for constructing new roads.

Near Atlit, there are extensive development plans for an area of calcareous sandstone hills that lies right smack in the middle of a high concentration of rare plants. The construction plans were scaled back following objections by residents and environmentalists, but they have not been canceled.

The three botanists advocate defining as many of the "red areas" as possible as new nature reserves. But they know that isn't about to happen, especially along the crowded coastal plain. Thus in those cases, at least selected areas should be protected, they argued.

The government does, however, have plans to protect wild plants on the margins of areas slated for development and even to reintroduce plants that went extinct in certain areas. One noteworthy effort is by Tel Aviv University scientists, who are rehabilitating agricultural land near Glilot - an area slated for the construction of about 12,000 housing units.

City Hall to the rescue?

Some endangered plants and their habitats could be sheltered by municipalities. Environmental groups like the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel have managed to persuade several municipalities to protect sites within their jurisdiction. Jerusalem is one. It even approved a plan to preserve "Deer Park," a spot of nature in the heart of the city that had been slated for housing development, a plan now voided.

While city parks are meant for families to relax, some, like the Iris Reserve in Netanya, can also help protect rare plants, the Red Data Book noted.

Another way to protect areas not inside nature reserves is to declare them "biospheres" - areas of great environmental value that are therefore protected from most development. A biosphere reserve is an area where preserving nature coexists with human activity.

Just over a week ago, UNESCO recognized the Ramat Menashe area southwest of Yokne'am as a "biosphere reserve" by adding the area to its Man and the Biosphere program. This happened at a conference in Dresden, Germany, where a total of 18 new biosphere reserves were included in the UNESCO program. According to the UN organization, Ramat Menashe "encompasses a mosaic of ecological systems that represent the Mediterranean Basin's version of the global evergreen sclerophyllous forests, woodlands and scrub ecosystem types."

Yet though Ramat Menashe and Mount Carmel have been declared biospheres, and others are in the works at the Interior Ministry, in at least one case, green organizations have declared the biosphere program a flop. That is the Lachish biosphere, which the Interior Ministry planned without consulting the affected local councils, the green groups say. As a result, the local councils viewed the plan as nothing but a collection of restrictions on development, and therefore opposed it.

The resultant compromise defined that biosphere as an area that could house new towns built for settlers evacuated from the Gaza Strip. The greens were not pleased.