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Parks authority may transfer thousands of acres, putting rare flower at risk

One of Israel's rarest flowers, the Gilboa Iris (iris haynei ), may be at risk because of a plan to transfer its habitat to the aegis of the Jewish National Fund, conservationists warn. The professional-scientific committee of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority will discuss tomorrow a plan to change the status of thousands of acres of land from "nature reserve" to "woodlands" and their transfer to JNF responsibility.

The committee's recommendation bears considerable weight in the authority's decision-making process.

Scientists concerned with protecting nature and the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel say the JNF is not a suitable custodian for the Gilboa's nature reserves because of its involvement in construction and development.

JNF officials reject the claims and say they would only strengthen the protection of nature on Mount Gilboa. The JNF had formerly supported building a new community on the Gilboa ridge on protected iris ground, a plan that was eventually shelved.

The plan developing the Gilboa forests is part of a larger land swap between the parks authority and the JNF. Some of the ground is man-made forest and contains 60 percent of the Gilboa Iris population - a species unique to Israel.

Scientists with the SPNI strongly oppose the reclassification since woodlands don't enjoy as much legal protection as a nature reserve. Some of them are also wary of the JNF. "Transferring these lands to the JNF is a grave mistake," said Professor Yoram Yom-Tov of Tel Aviv University, one of 60 scientists who last year signed an open letter against the move. "It's an organization that's not concerned with nature protection, and it actually interfered with that more than once." The JNF, he said, is run by politicians and they could give preference to considerations of development over protecting nature. The SPNI wants all iris habitats on Mount Gilboa to be part of a natural reserve under the parks authority. "We offered the JNF a compromise that would see small but important parts of the ridge become a natural reserve it would co-manage. The JNF agreed, and then regrettably changed its mind," the society said in a statement.

Dr. Omri Boneh, who heads the JNF northern district, responded: "We are full partners in preserving and nurturing the Gilboa Iris, and the plant's population had actually grown across the woodlands. We will accept any professional recommendation on how to increase the protection of the plants, and there is no organization that's better qualified." Boneh rejected the claim that political considerations could overrule ecological ones. "The professionals in the JNF have full backing, and there is no intervention from the political echelon," he said. Boneh said the SPNI offer was rejected because of opposition from the local councils of the Gilboa ridge.