Gilboa nature reserve.
Gilboa nature reserve. Photo by yaron Kaminski
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On the eve of Tu Bishvat, two of the country's leading ecological groups are feuding over the character of open spaces in northern Israel. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI ) wants to see natural woodlands maintained, while the Jewish National Fund (JNF ) would like to expand the region's forests.

The SPNI, which is Israel's largest environmental organization, noted earlier this week that while the JNF has done much to protect open spaces, it lacks "legal and professional tools that allow management of the areas under its aegis, with a view that gives top priority to nature protection and prevention of harm to protected natural assets."

The Tu Bishvat planting ceremony the Jewish National Fund has organized next week in the Lower Galilee's Beit Keshet Forest is a case in point - the JNF will be planting oak trees for Jewish Arbor Day in an area the SPNI wants to see continue to be a nature reserve rather than a planted forest.

Over the past two years, the SPNI has been fighting the JNF in the northern district's Planning and Building Council after the JNF's request to rezone areas of Mount Gilboa and Beit Keshet as forests.

Until now, these areas have been nature reserves. The SPNI has even included these areas in its annual report on threatened open spaces in Israel.

Two months ago, the SPNI protested pruning work in a grove near Netanya, arguing that the pruning was seriously damaging wild plants. The JNF vehemently rejected the charge.

Heating up the debate over the JNF's ability to protect nature other than trees is an agreement it signed six years ago with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. In it, the parks authority agreed to give up control of its forested areas to the JNF, in exchange for the JNF not opposing the declaration of nature reserves in other places.

The parks authority is responsible for about 6 million dunams (1.5 million acres ), and the JNF some 1.2 million dunams (300,000 acres ).

According to the SPNI, this agreement makes it impossible for the parks authority to exercise professional discretion and fulfill its function, because the status of forest affords less protection to open space than the status of nature reserve.

Israel Nature and Parks Authority's director general, Shaul Goldstein, declined to respond to questions about the JNF agreement, saying that he was still studying the subject. (Goldstein assumed his position at the end of 2011. )

Following the agreement, the parks authority transfered reserves on Mount Gilboa and in the Beit Keshet area to the JNF. According to the SPNI, the transfer means that special natural treasures in these areas, like the Gilboa iris and other wild flowers, will now not be sufficiently protected.

Zoning an area as a forest allows roads to be constructed, recreation equipment installed and spraying.

A pledge by the parks authority and the JNF that the forest would be managed like a nature reserve has given little comfort to nature experts. Eighteen months ago, iris expert Dr. Yuval Sapir told a committee of scientific experts at the parks authority that "some forest ranger who doesn't know the management instructions for the area could come along and plow it up or spray it."

But the JNF says that, in recent years, the Gilboa iris has spread to forested areas and that at Beit Keshet, it was the JNF that had prevented the construction of housing and roads.

"There are plans to make the Gilboa and the Beit Keshet Forest greener, and of all things it is the SPNI that is delaying them," a senior JNF official said. The JNF said it has its own planning and legal tools to protect nature, among them the national master plan for forests. This classifies forests into a number of types, among them those in which a high degree of nature protection is required.

Attempts at a compromise over the Gilboa - leaving part of the area a nature reserve rather than defining it as a forest - have so far been unsuccessful, and the plan to rezone the area is now awaiting final approval.

"We presented the opinion of ecologists that the status of nature reserve must not be given up," the SPNI's Yohanan Darom said, adding: "Meanwhile, no opposing opinion has been presented."

The SPNI and the JNF have also faced off over a new law now being promoted by the Agriculture Ministry to establish a forestry authority. The JNF believes it would be the best choice to head the authority. However, a few weeks ago, SPNI deputy director general Nir Papai asked Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan to come out against the JNF as head of the new authority because the SPNI believes its "organizational and statutory structure are unsuitable for the structure required by a government authority managing forests."