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A trip to a refreshing spring at Park Hama'ayanot in the Jordan Valley may be just the thing for this spell of hot weather, but park administrators have recently announced that you'll have to ditch your car to get inside.

The park, which is near Beit She'an, is now closed to cars, in an effort to reverse some of the extensive damage that has already been caused by the many visitors to the park's major water attractions: Ein Shokek, Ein Moda and Nahal Hakibbutzim.

It's not closed to the public, though, and it's even free. You'll just have to go in on foot or by bicycle, or use the shuttle service from the Gan Hashlosha National Park (popularly known as the Sahne). Some electric vehicles will also be allowed, and available for rent.

"What happened was that we could not manage the site with the means at our disposal," said Ramon Ben Ari, director of the Southern Jordan Drainage Authority. "We had to cope with vandalism that included broken water faucets, people walking on cultivated land and trampling irrigation pipes, cutting down trees and so forth."

Yehuda Carmi, director of the Gan Hashlosha park, said once the visitors began streaming in to the park, destruction followed close behind.

"From the moment the springs were discovered [by the public], a huge wave of visitors preferred to spend their time at the free rest areas, and destruction followed," said Carmi. "Benches were smashed, garbage bins and wood were set on fire, and enormous amounts of trash accumulated."

For a long time the springs were known primarily to residents of the area and a few savvy travelers. But once park authorities marked trails between the springs and built rest areas near the water, the number of visitors increased substantially - to more than 200,000 by last year, according to a Geocartography Institute survey.

"It's a serious dilemma: Should these places be kept from the public, or should there be public access?" asked Carmi. "When it comes to the springs, the question is no longer relevant, since the area is open with the best of intentions, but right now the situation has deteriorated and harm is being done to nature. Even the visitors can't enjoy it anymore, not to mention area residents who have stopped coming to the springs."

The car ban, said Carmi, could help make the springs as attractive as they once were.

"We are trying to turn the wheel backwards in terms of nature," said Carmi. "For example, there are animals like otters that have abandoned the area because of the tremendous pressure. Now we're trying to get them back. On the one hand, we want vacationers to continue to enjoy the area, but on the other hand, we want to preserve hygiene, the water, vegetation and animal life."

The institutions involved in administering the park - the Jewish National Fund, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the Kinneret Authority, and the tourism, agriculture, and environmental protection ministries - decided on the car ban as a moderate choice that lies between closing the springs to the public and allowing the destruction to continue unhampered.

"Whoever is in charge always faces the dilemma of preservation versus access," said Yoram Krin, head of the Emek Hama'ayanot Regional Council. "The right way is to keep them open in an intelligent way."

The authorities said they do not plan to start charging admission.

"We want to remain open [for free] and give the public what it deserves - not piles of garbage - so they will enjoy their leisure time," said Ben Ari.

However, the cost of park maintenance stands at hundreds of thousands of shekels a year, partly because of the extensive mess and damage caused by the many visitors.

"There are a lot of doubts and uncertainties," Ben Ari said. "What's for sure is that the situation couldn't be much worse than it is now."